On October 3, Venetians rejoiced as the 17-year-old, $6.6-billion MOSE barriers rose for the first time, fulfilling a 30–plus year promise of deployable flood protection for the beleaguered city. After the city experienced its worst flooding in 50 years last November, a catastrophic event that left the 925-year-old St. Mark’s Basilica underwater, it seemed that reliable relief was finally in sight.
As climate change continues to raise sea levels and Venice is increasingly threatened by acqua alta (high water), or spillover from the Venetian Lagoon when the adjoining Adriatic Sea floods in, MOSE was pitched as a long-term solution. The inflatable yellow barriers will normally sit at the bottom of the lagoon, and when flooding is in the forecast, rise to block off the three inlets linking it to the Adriatic Sea. Although water levels only reached 2.3 feet on October 3, the MOSE system is designed to accommodate heights of up to 10 feet—well beyond anything ever recorded in Venice, but not impossible in a worst-case sea level rise scenario in the next few decades.
However, as The Art Newspaper reported today, Venice’s priceless architectural treasures, including St. Mark’s Basilica and Square, may not be protected after all. Although the test was successful, from now through the end of 2021, MOSE will only be deployed when flooding is predicted to reach 4.25 feet or higher; a decision that will leave St. Mark’s underwater.
The reason, according to the Consorzio Venezia Nuova, the company responsible for designing, building, and managing the MOSE system, is simple: Industry. Although the shipping industry has, for the length of MOSE’s development, reportedly signed agreements that would put the city first, during the test launch seven ships were stuck outside of the lagoon for five hours. That didn’t sit well with the port authority, who has successfully lobbied for the higher minimum deployment. The move is intended to protect the economic interests of the Marghera port, the eighth largest in Italy that reportedly supports 27 percent of economic activity within the Commune of Venice, a municipality that encompasses not only the city proper but further back into the Italian mainland.
Under a 4.25-foot minimum deployment right now, it’s estimated that 69 percent of the city will remain vulnerable to flooding. After 2021, the minimum will be lowered to 3.5 feet, still well above the 2.6-foot flood line for St. Mark’s Basilica. In 2018, according to The Art Newspaper, the city experienced flooding between those two ranges a whopping 121 times, and St. Mark’s administrators are now coming up with alternative plans for how to protect the UNESCO World Heritage Site.