Venice Is Really Sinking: How Corruption & Overtourism Have Worsened the Acqua Alta Problem
Located on the Venetian Lagoon, an enclosed bay in northeastern Italy, Venice is a city made up of 118 small islands, all of which are linked by more than 400 bridges. Given monikers like "The Floating City," Venice touts its unique waterfront features, causing many to tease that "it’s sinking." However, as of November 2019, Venice really is sinking — or being overtaken by water. And that once tongue-in-cheek expression has become a very pressing problem.
According to reports, about 3 feet of standing water still fills the cafes and businesses that flank St. Mark’s Square. Meanwhile, the city’s famous gondolas, which can’t make it under the now-low-hanging bridges, are beached. The damage to the canals and historic sites — including the renowned St. Mark’s Basilica — has put Venice’s designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in jeopardy.
The recent acqua alta (high water) isn’t the city’s first time contending with drastically rising tides — there were devastating floods in 1966 too — but the recent influx of water has caused a staggering $1.1 billion in damages. Art historian and UNESCO’s former Venice advisor Wolfgang Wolters spoke to Germany’s DW News, saying that unlike the floods of 53 years ago, it's "clear that the problem [today] is man-made."
Acqua Alta in the Wake of Corruption & Climate Change
For 900-plus years, Venetians have found ways to combat rising water levels, namely by blocking rivers and building up the lagoon’s naturally occurring barrier islands. Nonetheless, these small-scale measures are no longer adequate. In the past, floods like these occurred every few decades; now they happen every few years. To make matters worse, the 1960s saw the construction of the Canale dei Petroli, a channel dredged to allow oil tankers access to the city’s mainland. This was built without much regard for the lagoon’s delicate ecosystem — or the need to protect against future flooding and rising water levels.
How Flooding Intersects with Overtourism
With a highly romanticized place like Venice, it’s easy to mourn the loss of the city’s art and architecture. However, we — and Venice’s government — should be turning our attention to the locals. Over the course of the last decade, Venice has become the birthplace of "overtourism" — that is, it’s is extremely popular and extremely over capacity. According to The Guardian, approximately 28 million visitors arrive in Venice annually, while roughly 2,000 once-permanent residents abandon the Floating City each year. This aligns with DW News’ findings: Reportedly, only 55,000 inhabitants still live in the city’s center, compared to the 175,000 residents who lived there 60 years ago. Infuriatingly for Venetians, floodwaters haven’t deterred visitors, but instead provided (insensitive) new selfie opportunities.