What does the future hold for Venice?

Written for Adventure.com - 8 January 2020  

in the grips of an overtourism problem, catastrophic November tides left Venice
flooded and unsure of its future. Italian photographer Nicola Zolin pays a
visit to a city he once called home to survey the scene.  

“How we
do we get there?” the Russian tourists asked David as he manned the nightshift
at the hotel desk. “Is it raining?”

gotta take the ferry boat to Castel Sant’Angelo and
walk from there,” David replied. “The weather is looking quite fine!” 

I know
this conversation happened because David, a friend of mine, posted it to social
media soon after it took place, alongside a photo from the news of an incoming
high tide. It was said that the tide would reach 160cm, an extreme acqua alta (high
water) in Venice. These acqua altas are a semi-regular occurrence in Venice; a
periodical part of life. So locals, like David, can tend to be a little
flippant about them.

whose real passions lie in storytelling, comedy and theater (not night shifts
at the hotel) often uses his social media accounts as an outlet for his comedy,
often ridiculing tourists, which
David considers in a way a cancer for the life of Venice. With his post that night, he thought
it’d be funny to have a little laugh at the expense of those Russians, knowing they’d probably get a bit wet
thanks to the imminent high tide.

David, and Venice, had no idea how bad things were about to get.

Tuesday, the 12th of November 2019, as a full moon hung low above Venice, the
conversation regarding the city’s future would change for good. Half of the city
was about to be flooded, the result of two winds—the sirocco and the bora—combining to cause a freak tide event.  

By the
time the Russian tourists had more or less reached the station of Santa Lucia, not
a soul in Venice could believe their eyes. The water kept rising—165cm, 170,
175, 180. David, now with both of his feet submerged, began to regret his joke.
“Fuck,” he thought to himself.  

by, he could hear the ferryboat station shaking noisily. Boats were being swept
away and some trees had fallen. Saint Mark’s Square was completely flooded—water
had poured in through the windows and entered the crypt of the cathedral, where
the relics of the Saint lie. The office of the regional council was engulfed. (Ironically,
local politicians had rejected a plan to tackle climate change just hours
before the flood came).   

tide quickly rose to 185cm. David took up the phone and called the Russian
tourists, trying to help, and explaining to them what an extraordinary
situation this was. Eventually, the tide stopped at 187cm. The Russian tourists
were stuck at the train station—but safe—until 4am, and the whole city was in a
state of shock.

By the
time I arrive in Venice by train the following day, the tide has retreated and
everyone is out on the streets checking the damage. The calm after the storm.
By dusk, the city is wrapped in an unusual darkness that I hadn’t experienced
in all my years living here. All the shops and restaurants are closed. No
lights glimmering, no pizza slice shops, no carnival masks or Chinese leather
bag stores open till late.

towards Calle Lunga San Barnaba
I meet Giovanni Leone, an
illuminated architect who studied in
Venice and later settled down in the city. He still has the mad look of someone
who’s just been through something intense. The night before, while he was out
walking with his son, the water reached above his waistline. Originally from
Sicily, in 42 years of living in Venice, he had never been afraid—until

studied the peculiarities of the city for years, he knows how heavily it was
damaged—the salt water corrodes the
foundations and walls of historical buildings, churches and houses—but his eyes
are still shining with light, “Because everyone is helping each other … no-one
is left behind,” he tells me. “This is the spirit of Venice.”

At the
feet of the Ponte dell’Accademia—one of
the four bridges spanning the Grand Canal—people are going in and out of the
partially-flooded Venice Conservatory, where countless famous composers have
written, played and have their compositions stowed. An army of volunteers is
helping dry books and musical manuscripts—some modern, some dating back to the 14- and 1500s. The clean-up must
be done quickly, I learn, to prevent them from going moldy. Once stored, all of
the damaged papers will need to be frozen, then restored at a special center in
Bologna. In such moment of hardship,
Venice is uniting with the same spirit of community that made it great from its
beginnings, when people from the mainland built up collectively a city from
scratch, domesticating the lagoon to find sanctuary from the invasions on the
mainland, step by step conquering the sea and uniting small islands with
bridges, creating a Republic that for centuries was one of the main power in
the Mediterranean.

the mayor of Venice, Luigi Brugnaro, turns up at the Conservatory, to see how the volunteers are getting on. I manage to
corner him for a quick conversation. “What we saw happen here was not a normal acqua
, but a catastrophe with incalculable damage,” he says. “Venice is the
first frontier of what is going to happen worldwide. When I was a child, I
didn’t really believe that water levels could rise because of climate change.
But now it’s obvious.”

is supposed to be a solution to Venice’s problems: MOSE, a system of mobile
gates that could close to isolate the Venetian Lagoon from the sea, and
therefore tides. Construction began on the 5.5 billion Euro project in 2003 and
was 85 per cent completed by 2013, but a series of delays, scandals and cost
overruns mean that completion is now pegged for some time in 2022. The question that everyone has is whether
the MOSE once completed will be an incredible technological solution for Venice
or just a global bluff. The mayor Brugnaro prefers not to take
position, saying that the project is out of his responsibility and he knows anything

tides have been occurring in Venice since records began in 1872. The problem is
that their frequency has been increasing—a direct consequence of the human
activities in the lagoon. Since 1908, Venice has sunk 12cm, while the water
levels have increased by around 11cm, leading to a net loss of around 23cm in
height in nearly a century.

tides started to get more common after the 1950s, when channels were dug and expanded
for industrial purposes—and even more so after 2003, when the works for the MOSE
began. According to Venice’s Tide Forecast and Warning Center, in the decade
between 1900 and 1909, there were only two tides higher than 110cm. Between
1960 and 1969 there were 31. In the last decade, there have already been more
than 70. It’s hard to think about the future of Venice amidst all of this,
knowingly that sea levels
could rise of 70-150 cm in this century. Even if the MOSE works, what will happen
in a few decades when the sea levels rise over its capacity to contain the
tides to flow into the lagoon?

Is it
only then a question of time? Or is Venice already dead? 

are the questions I ask myself as I look at the useless souvenir shops and the
wealthy foreigners who have, overnight, flocked to Venice to check the damage
to their rental properties. These are the questions I ask myself as I look
at the 90-tonne cruise ships ferrying tourists up and down Giudecca’s channels.
The politicians know these cruises are dangerous, polluting, and unsustainable
for Venice—but none of them want to renounce the profits they bring in. These
are the questions.

In the 16th
century, Venice was the most densely populated city in the Italian peninsula.
In the 1950s, the population was 150,000. Today, the local population has
dwindled to 53,000, while roughly 25 million tourists visit the city every year.
The locals are not leaving because of acqua alta—they’re leaving because
of the tourists. For all the good tourism does for economies, inflation is a
real problem, particularly for housing. And with so many small businesses
unable to keep up with the price increases, traditions and communities are
being lost, and the Venetian social fabric itself is threated.  After this disaster, I can’t stop asking
myself if anything will change. Will Venice continue to lose even more citizens or will the population manage
to overcome these challenges?

‘Venice has
always been an innovative city, but it needs to be free to change and to adapt
to the new conditions, instead of being rigid as it has become now’ Giovanni
Leone tells me during a citizen’s assembly where people are gathering to
discuss alternatives to the commodification of Venice.  ‘It If we make a step back, we can still save
it, but the balance between the humans and the lagoon must be restored. The
‘monoculture of tourism’ limits the power of its inhabitants to preserve what
is its greatest value: the experience. If we allow real life and traditions to
disappear, then Venice isn’t dying just by itself, but it’s dying because we
are killing it’.

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