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MOSE: drastic surgery

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This is also the lagoon.

This is also the lagoon.

I promise that I will not transform this blog into the daily bulletin from the MOSE hecatomb.

But two days ago (June 14), at the last meeting of the council of ministers, the government did something so extreme — and indisputably necessary and long overdue — that I want at least to make it known.

They abolished the Magistrato alle Acque.  An entire government agency with 500 years of history is no more.  Yesterday it was, today it is not.

Beginning in October, its responsibilities will be “absorbed” by the Inter-regional Director of Public Works of the three contiguous regions of the Veneto, Friuli Venezia Giulia, and Trentino Alto Adige.

Of course this is good, but I feel sick at heart.  Not only because of the annihilation of one of the last tiny links to the Venetian Republic, but because a gesture of this magnitude shows all too vividly the extent of the rot.

People who occasionally had to request a permit for temporary use of a certain stretch of lagoon have long been aware that the Magistrato was as swampy as Reelfoot Lake.  It wouldn’t have been the first city agency whose functionaries accepted the occasional guerdon for speeding up the processing of requests.  I’m not saying the employees of the Magistracy did such a thing.  I’m just saying that if they did, they wouldn’t have been alone.

The MOSE work has made the tides stronger and faster, so the fish are having to work harder at their annual migrations.

The MOSE work has made the tides stronger and faster, which has affected plants, fish and, I presume, also birds. But the floods of water are nothing compared to the floods of payoffs.

The Magistracy of the Waters was established in 1501; it was specifically charged with overseeing the health and security of the lagoon, and any action required — digging, land reclamation, maintenance — had to have its approval.

Care of the lagoon required care of its tributary rivers, too.  Venetian engineers diverted the Po River, for God’s sake; between 1600 and 1604, innumerable men with shovels and wheelbarrows cut Italy’s greatest river at Porto Viro and turned it southward.  There were many reasons for this, some of them political, some economic, but it was also time to limit the amount of sediment that was filling up the lagoon.  The Venetian Republic knew that the care of the lagoon was its primary life insurance.

“Lagoon” (laguna) is a Venetian word, by the way.

But the Magistrato was populated by many individuals who were not all of the same stripe, and in 1678, human nature having demonstrated its impressive dimensions, the Venetian Senate created a group of inquisitors to conduct the legal cases against those accused of having damaged the lagoon.  There must be some diabolical hothouse somewhere that causes little tiny crook seedlings to sprout, then sells them to the Magistrato alle Acque where, in its own special microclimate, they can flourish and grow to be big tall leafy crooks.

In fact, I now learn that this is the third time that the Magistrato has been “suppressed,” as the headlines put it, though it’s the first occasion where the reason was crime.

In 1808, during the brief but eventful French domination of the city (1806-1814), the Viceroy Eugene Beauharnais put an end to it, for reasons I haven’t yet discovered. It didn’t take long for it to become evident that this was an error, the neglect having contributed to an assortment of watery damage.  When the Austrians took over for the first time (1816-1848), they quickly re-established the Magistrato, reorganized it, renamed some departments, applied a coat of varnish and it was good to go again.

In 1866, when Venice and the Veneto became part of the new nation of Italy, the Magistrato was annulled again, and again a series of hydraulic disasters showed what serious consequences could come from indifference to the state of the waterways.

The Magistrato was reformulated for the third time in 1907 as part of the Ministry of Infrastructure and Transport, and its authority expanded to cover the entire hydrological basin of northeast Italy — an enormous watershed of rivers, lakes, and other lagoons stretching from Mantova to Trieste.  Total area of its authority was some 40,000 square kilometers (15,000 square miles).  So when we talk about the misfeasance of the Magistrato, we’re not talking about some little local entity that turned out to have just a few bad apples.

I very sincerely hope that Cuccioletta and Piva, in their respective cells awaiting trial, are happy.  Because I’m not, and neither are a whole bunch of other people.

This is a relatively recent lion, and he looks like he's had more than enough of all this.

This is a relatively recent lion, and he looks like he’s had more than enough of all this.


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Reflections on water

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There seems to be something wrong with the date November 4.  And I’m not referring to the Unknown Soldier.  I’m referring to water.

On November 4, 1966, the famous acqua extra-alta flowed over Venice. It was also the day on which the catastrophic flood of the Arno struck Florence.  (Trivia alert: A similar flood hit Florence on November 4, 1333.)

And now November 4, 2011 has entered the annals of suffering in Genova, flooded by at least two of their rivers which were overwhelmed by torrential rains.

I mention this for several reasons, and not primarily to make you wonder what it is about November 4 that seems to make the firmament go feral.

One reason I mention it is because Venice usually gets the headlines, whether there is a real problem or not.  The foreign press loves to dramatize us splashing around in the Piazza San Marco, but I’m not sure that it has drawn appropriate attention to the cataclysm which has driven Genova to its knees, so I am making a point of telling you here.

Another reason I bring it up is to repeat one of my essential points about water in Venice compared to water in other places, which is that you can’t compare them.

So I will summarize it here and — I hope — won’t drone on about it any more this year.

Acqua alta is not “flooding.”  Flooding is what happened in Florence, and in Genova, and other places I won’t list, and it often involves destruction and death.

We get wet.  They get killed.  On November 4 in Genova, there were at least seven victims. One woman was crushed between two cars being swept away down what used to be a street.  Another woman and her two small children were drowned when the crest of the flood caught them in the entryway of their apartment building before they could make it to the staircase.  And so on.

These are utterly tragic stories which are — thank God — impossible to replicate with acqua alta.

Some "water on the ground" in the Piazza San Marco. The tide is coming in, as you can tell by the fact that the pavement to the left is dry. And then it will be going out again. It's hard to think of calling this "flooding."

Therefore I trust that any drama you may encounter in the upcoming months in the press, on TV, on tourists’ blogs, concerning water in Venice will not impress you.  In fact, I hope you won’t even notice it.

To review: Acqua alta is tide.  It comes in, it goes out.  It does not destroy bridges, rip up trees, or make floating trucks smash into buildings. Or humans.

So please spare a thought for the people in Genova (and elsewhere) who are suffering hideously from this avalanche of water.  Do not expend any thought whatever on whether people in Venice have to put their boots on for two hours.

Though if you think we ought to start a group to advocate the abolition of November 4 from the calendar, I’ll be ready to sign up.

Genova, November 4, 2011.


Genova, beginning to dig out.


Venice, November 30, 2009. Not the same thing.

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Categories : Acqua Alta, Flooding
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