Archive for Venetian Environmental Issues

Jun
13

MOSE: Worse than acqua alta

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The lagoon -- so beautiful, and so abused.

The lagoon — so beautiful, and so abused.

On June 4, the dam broke.

I don’t mean the ingeniously devised dam (a/k/a “MOSE”) still under construction, which is formed by mobile barriers intended to block high water from entering Venice for a few hours every so often.  I mean the dam that was the financing of the project.

No one is really surprised.  Any public work budgeted at 5 billion euros (6.5 billion dollars) is a monumental petri dish for cultivating corruption.  But what has stunned just about everybody is the sheer scope of it all.  I’ve heard some people say they don’t believe it will ever become completely untangled — names which were given code numbers, foreign accounts, fake receipts, fake financial reports, fake banks, even.  All of this created and maintained by the Consorzio Venezia Nuova, the consortium which had sole power over the administration of the work, the awarding of contracts, and every detail of who and what was involved in the project.  Taken altogether, some estimate that the Consorzio paid out 1 billion euros in gifts, favors and graft.

The Northeast, especially members of the Northern League, has spent years sneering at the waste and crime south of Rome, past Naples, deep into the heart of Sicily.  The North wanted to secede from the feckless, blood-sucking South. Marches and vigils were held in the “fight against the mafia.”

The MOSE logo is very clever.

The MOSE logo is very clever.

But no more is the voice of the sneer heard in the land, at least not in the Veneto.

News of the arrest of the mayor of Venice, Giorgio Orsoni, sped around the world, though he is just one tiny (sorry, Giorgio, but you are, in fact, very tiny) piece of the story.  To spend even five seconds thinking about Orsoni is like thinking about a broken fingernail when you’ve just been diagnosed with cancer.

Orsoni resigned today, after house arrest, liberation, then plea-bargaining which got him a trifling four-month sentence.  To reach this point, we had to endure the usual tedious pantomime.

Day 1: “I didn’t take even one euro.”

Day 2:  “I took money but it was for my political party.”

Day 3:  “I took money.” How much?  560,000 even-one-euros.  Rabbit pellets! Emilio Spaziante, the number-two general of the entire Guardia di Finanza (what I call the Finance Police), was given 2,500,000 euros by the Consorzio Venezia Nuova.  Vulture chow!  Giancarlo Galan, the former governor of the Veneto Region, got 1,000,000 euros per year for seven years (2005 – 2011).

Back to Orsoni.

Day 4: “I’m not resigning.”

And on Day 5, “I have tendered my resignation.” Orsoni said he is bitter, disillusioned, and is going to leave the perfidious world of politics. He might as well; he already opened the Emergency Exit door himself.

Malfeasance of these dimensions requires a book, not a blog post.  A mere book?  “Give me a condor’s quill!” Herman Melville cried, staggering at the prospect of describing the white whale; “Give me Vesuvius’ crater as an inkstand!  Friends, hold my arms!”

Being a mere mortal, I can only outline a few details here, each of which is plenty.

One of the smaller barriers, with others under construction in Marghera last October.  The narrow upper edge is attached to the cement base by means of a hinge.

One of the smaller barriers, with others under construction in Marghera last October. The narrow upper edge is attached to the cement base by means of a hinge.

The tunnel in the cement caissons to which the yellow floating barriers are hinged.  This tunnel is 400 meters (1,300 feet) long, and 13 meters (43 feet) below the water's surface.

The tunnel in the cement caissons to which the yellow floating barriers are hinged. This tunnel is 400 meters (1,300 feet) long, and 13 meters (43 feet) below the water’s surface.

After five years of unflagging labor, 300 officers of the Guardia di Finanza had assembled enough evidence to validate — nay, require — the arrest of as many as 100 people on charges of corruption, bribes, kickbacks, fraud, influence-peddling, and every form of villainy in which money can play even so much as a walk-on role.  The complexity and the dimensions of this titanic construction of crime, begun in the early Nineties, has overwhelmed this project, overwhelmed even its perpetrators.

The edifice began to crumble with the unexpected retirement, on June 28, 2013, of Giovanni Mazzacurati, who spent 30 years at the apex of the Consorzio, first as director general, then as president.  He cited reasons of health.  He got a 7 million dollar departure bonus.  And on July 12, he was arrested for turbativa d’asta, or bid rigging.

The basic idea of the design.

The basic idea of the design.

At that point, even I knew what would come next: He wasn’t going to go down alone.

A straggling procession of degraded characters marches across the newspaper every day now, carrying the equally monotonous quantities of money — public money dedicated to the project, not private money — which they so eagerly accepted in so many forms, right down to the classic white envelope stuffed with cash.

A judge from the Court of Audit.  Members of parliament.  Members of the European parliament. Directors of the Magistrato alle Acque, the agency established in 1501 to safeguard the lagoon (Maria Giovanna Piva, director from 2001-2008 and Patrizio Cuccioletta, director from 2008-2011, received 400,000 euros a year to ignore what was being done in the lagoon).  Eleven years of good times rolling everywhere in the world of the famous floodgates.

In its report, which runs for many hundreds of pages, the Procura — an official government watchdog entity — said that there was “total confusion in the roles of the controllers and the controlled.  No obstacle, no vigilance, no important remark was made by the Magistrato alle Acque under Piva and Cuccioletta.”

Everyone knew something very fishy was up.  But the haul has been beyond anyone’s capacity to imagine.

“Corruption” is such a compact word that we tend to lose track of its essential meaning.  “Moral perversion; depravity; perversion of integrity; decay: rot; putrefaction.”

MOSE was supposed to save Venice.  But nobody could save Venice from MOSE.

The first of the four gates breaks the surface.

A test of the four gates at the Lido/San Nicolo’. The first of the four breaks the surface.

 

A tes of the four gates that had been installed last October.  They rise up one by one, and bob gently with the motion of the water.  If they were rigidly fixed, or came up all at once, the force of the tide could damage (i.e.,  break) them, I was told.

They rise up one by one, and bob gently with the motion of the water. If they were rigidly fixed, or came up all at once, the force of the tide could damage (i.e., break) them, I was told. The gates at Malamocco are much longer because they are installed deeper below the surface.

 

A passerby stops to look at the political satire/cartoon that was taped on walls all around the neighborhood.  Good thing I took some pictures; a day later, it was gone.

A passerby stops to look at the political satire/cartoon that was taped on walls all around the neighborhood. Good thing I took some pictures; a day later, it was gone.

(L to R, translated by me, though the interpretation is hard to get into a small caption):  THE LAST SUPPER (Let's hope). Mazzacurati: Hey guys, how much are you eating? Spaziante: Chill, Bettin (ex-councilor for the environment), we've got a secret weapon. Baita: I only wanted to facilitate. Brunetta:  I declared the MOSE money I got for the election. Beppe Caccia: During the Paolo Costa government I and Paolo Cacciari were always sleeping. Costa: For me, the "No Big Ships" is enough. Massimo Cacciari (mayor before Costa and Orsoni) To deny is a categorical imperative. Orsoni: I never took one euro. Floating ballon, a riff on a Venetian song, "Georgie, get in my gondola and I'll take you to MOSE."  Falconi: I only did the Passante (Mestre bypass). Galan:  But if Minchillo did everything. Marchese: But if for two years I wasn't a member of the Partito Democratico anymore. Scola (ex-patriarch and founder of Marcianum, a cultural entity of the diocese using dicey contributions) But if Marcianum didn't work ("march") by itself.  Minchillo: I did everything Galan ordered me to do.  (Top right corner): C. Nordio : Zip it ("boca tasi" literally means "mouth keep quiet"). At the bottom, "And Venice wasn't aware of anything?" "No, the Consorzio told them "Stay serene" (a play on "Serenissima," the sobriquet of the Venetian Republic and also the name of the right-wing political faction that wants to secede from Italy).

(L to R, translated by me, though the interpretation is hard to get into a small caption. Parts are written in Venetian): THE LAST SUPPER (Let’s hope). Mazzacurati: Hey guys, how much are you eating? Spaziante: Chill, Bettin (ex-councilor for the environment), we’ve got a secret weapon. Bettin:  I didn’t give the 4,130,000 euros for reclamation of the Certosa (island). Baita: I only wanted to facilitate. Brunetta: I declared the MOSE money I got for the election. Beppe Caccia: During the Paolo Costa government I and Paolo Cacciari were always sleeping. Costa: For me, the “No Big Ships” is enough. Massimo Cacciari (mayor before Costa and Orsoni) To deny is a categorical imperative. Orsoni: I never took one euro. Floating balloon, a riff on a Venetian song, “Georgie, get in my gondola and I’ll take you to MOSE.” Falconi: I only did the Passante (Mestre bypass). Galan: But if Minchillo did everything. Marchese: But if for two years I wasn’t a member of the Partito Democratico anymore. Scola (ex-patriarch and founder of Marcianum, a cultural entity of the diocese created with dicey contributions) But if Marcianum didn’t work (“march”) by itself. Minchillo: I did everything Galan ordered me to do. (Top right corner): C. Nordio : Zip it (“boca tasi” literally means “mouth keep quiet”). At the bottom, “And Venice wasn’t aware of anything?” “No, the Consorzio told them “Stay serene” (a play on “Serenissima,” the sobriquet of the Venetian Republic and also the name of the right-wing political faction that wants to secede from Italy).

 

Categories : MOSE
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Feb
03

And speaking of animals

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I suddenly realized that when I was proposing the going-away party for the boy — clothes, but possibly also food, because he must be really hungry by now — I didn’t mention the frog.

That was an oversight. So here’s the plan.

First, the frog would be freed.

Second, he would be given a large pile of small- and medium-sized rocks to throw at the boy.

Third, he would be given a hundred things his heart might desire, from the unlisted phone numbers of Charles Ray (sculptor) and Francois Pinault (collector), to his own private estate with tennis court and helipad in the Great Moss Swamp, to a date with every winner of the Miss Humanity of the Netherlands pageant.  And a huge party at the Waldorf-Astoria for freed dolphins, liberated dancing bears, wounded hedgehogs, rehabilitated slow lorises, and birds whose owners accidentally left their cages open.  He’ll also have his own smorgasbord with all the beetles, grasshoppers, spiders, and Purina Frog Chow he’ll ever want.  And a trampoline.  And a pony.

Lino spotted this gull because of his little identification anklet. Maybe he’s in the bird atlas by now, with a number if not a name.

While we’re on the subject of animals, here’s something you might find interesting.  More than 240 species of birds spend at least some, if not all, of their time in the Venetian lagoon and immediate vicinity.

An article in the Gazzettino announced this fact along with the notice of the publication of a new atlas of birds, the result of five years of data-gathering. For the record, the title is “Uccelli di laguna e di citta’ – L’atlante ornitologico del comune di Venezia 2006-2011,” written by Mauro Bon and Emanuele Stival, ornithologists of the Museum of Natural History, published by Marsilio.

Of these birds, 142 species come only for the winter, 115 come to nest, and about 60 are migrating. If you stop and read that over again, I think you’ll be respectfully amazed.  In fact, the lagoon is at a crucial point on a major north-south flyway, and is one of the largest lagoons left in Europe. It’s far from being just scenery.

Even though I’ve never seen them, I now have learned that there is a Hungarian royal seagull which arrives in the fall, and spends the winter in the Giardini Reali between the Piazza San Marco and the lagoon. And there is an extremely rare black-legged kittiwake that comes from England.

The Little Egret, which is abundant in the lagoon, doesn’t mind looking for a bite wherever the chances seem good, though they seem to be happier pecking through the shallows when the tide is low. There is a tree near the Vignole which at twilight in the summer is almost completely white with the egrets who’ve come to perch there for the night.

I was already interested in birds because rowing around the lagoon at all hours and in all seasons means that you see plenty of them.  For one thing, they’re everywhere.  For another, they’re generally easier to see than fish.

Some of the birds I’ve come to recognize are as much as part of Venice as canals and tourists. The svasso (grebe) and tuffetto (little grebe), only appear in the winter. The cormorants, mallards, seagulls, egrets and herons are here all year. I’ve already gone on too long about my passion for blackbirds (a few months per year), and I’ve never bothered to mention pigeons because there’s nothing worth saying about them.  They are the roaches of the avian world; they’ll be here pecking around and crooning after the last nuclear device explodes. I am prepared for hostile letters from pigeon-feeders.

There is one kingfisher who I watch for as we row behind the Vignole; all you can see is a flash of iridescent blue-green flitting through the trees and over the water. I wish he’d hold still somewhere just for a minute, but he’s not interested in being admired.

In the plush summer nights we almost always hear a solitary owl called a soleta (civetta in Italian), somewhere high in the trees in the Public Gardens.  He or she makes a soft one-tone hoot, repeated pensively at perfectly regular intervals.  It’s like a metronome, far away. It goes on for hours.  It’s very comforting.

A young Little Gull, photographed in Northumberland. Maybe he’s thinking about his Venetian vacation.

For two days not long ago we were startled to see a fluffy young gull we’d never seen before, standing on the fondamenta gazing out at the lagoon. Determined research revealed that it is a Little Gull. We haven’t seen it since.

And one magical winter day a trio of swans flew over us.  You hardly ever see the wild swans, but here were three, flying so low that I could see their long necks undulating slightly and hear a curious murmur from their throats.

Many of these birds depend on organisms and elements in the lagoon wetlands which exist because of, or are replenished by, acqua alta.  If so many people who never leave the city didn’t get so worked up about having to put on boots, the water could continue to provide for lots of creatures who like being here too.  Maybe your tourist or trinket-seller doesn’t care about the birds, but the birds probably don’t care about the Doge’s Palace and Harry’s Bar. Just saying.

A luscious look at acqua alta in the lagoon. A soaking marshy islet looks even better to a bird than it does to me.

This is the single grey heron I’ve seen here, always fishing between Sant’ Andrea and Sant’ Erasmo.

And of course the indefatigable seagulls. They look more attractive out here than plodding along the fondamentas ripping open plastic bags and strewing the garbage all around. Lino says nobody ever saw gulls in the canals, much less on the streets, when he was a boy. The same with cormorants, who we sometimes see fishing in our canal.

Comments (3)

The Consorzio Venezia Nuova looks at the lagoon but doesn’t see this. It sees endless floods of cash pouring into MOSE for all eternity.

I received this comment from an unknown reader, and while it’s right there in the Comments area of my blog, I wanted to make sure everybody had a chance to see it.  (I don’t assume that everybody reads the Comments.)

The obvious reply to Emiliano’s rhetorical question is “Of course they don’t want discussion,” to be followed by “Why would they want discussion?”  I would be surprised if any data is available, because I doubt that any such research has been done.  Because who would care?  Except Emiliano, I mean.

Hi,

I’m an Italian scientist working on anti-fouling alternative solutions in Sweden. I wrote an email to “consorzio venezia nuova” in order to get some informations about the strategies they intend to put in act in order to minimize the risk of malfunction of the caissons as consequence of the formation of large colonies of fouling organism inside and outside the caissons. In my opinion the weight gain caused by the formation of colonies of barnacles and mytilus could make ineffective the floating system, i.e. even if you pump air in the caissons the caissons will rest on the bottom because the 3/4 of the volume will be occupied by fouling organisms. It could have been a great opportunity for cooperation between the consortium and scientific community, a challenging problem to solve together.
But the consortium answered “what kind of paint are you selling?”. The thing is that I’m not selling anything else that several years experience, a great network of anti fouling scientists all over the world and a EU financed project that we started in sept. 2012 and which will deal with similar problematic on cruising surfaces as boats.
I proposed them opportunity, innovation, research, in other world, science, but the Consortium seems more on the let’s make it happen here and now.
Whatever. I still can’t find anywhere some data regarding what countermeasures will be taken in this project as anti-fouling system. This would be great to know, it could help transparency and open a discussion. But maybe it is exactly what has to be avoided. Discussion!
I feel sorry for not being useful as a scientist in my country. This means that i will bit it and will keep doing my impact aboard as I already have done the past few years.
(if someone have some data about the antifouling countermeasure they gone to use please put here some link or reference)
//Emiliano 

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Nov
29

Why blame anybody?

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The peak tide forecast for last night at 11:20 PM was 130 cm.

At around 8:30 we heard the siren, with three tones.  Not a happy sound, but one that does not portend water in our house.

About an hour later, sirens again, with four tones.  Not happy at all, though we still have a chance of staying dry. Evidently the scirocco had gotten stronger.  In fact, we could (as usual in these cases) hear it making its customary deep roar out along the Lido’s Adriatic beaches.

At 10:00 PM, a look out the window revealed water ambling inland.  It had just gone past our first step, which is fine because as long as it’s moving forward it’s not moving upward (at least, not much).

At 10:30 PM, another look showed that the water wasn’t ambling inland anymore.  It was just sitting there, with a few little ripples here and there. And no longer did we hear the wind roaring, which meant the wind had either dropped or changed direction.

Reprieved!  Because the fact that the tide was due to turn in less than an hour (an imprecise prediction, but that’s what we were going by) meant that at 10:30 the tide was already entering the phase known to us as “stanca,” or “tired.”  Slowing down.  Losing headway. Coasting in neutral.  However you want to think of it.

Therefore the tide wouldn’t be rising much more, if at all, before it began to go out.

At 11:00 PM, the tide was visibly receding.  Early!  I’ll take it!

So, instead of getting water nearly up to our top step, as per the warning sirens, it didn’t even make it halfway up the first step.  My guess is that it would have been a two-siren height, at best.

The traditional conundrum: Which is worse?  When the Tide Center’s prediction turns out to be right?  Or when it’s wrong?

If you saw this, would your first instinct be to call some city office to find out if it might be going to rain?

I haven’t read today’s newspaper’s account of all this because they become pretty monotonous. One truly monotonous component is the assortment of complaints from people about how inaccurate the forecast was, and the weary reply from the Tide Center that with the few coins a year they’re allotted as financing, it’s a wonder they get anything done at all.

I’d like to add another viewpoint in support of the Tide Center, run by the exemplary Paolo Canestrelli, who has been dealing with this for decades.  (I would bet money that when he retires — the prospect of which must be the one thing that keeps him going — he is going to go live in a yurt on the steppes of Outer Mongolia.)

Here is my viewpoint: Why cast blame on the Tide Center? It was established in the early Seventies in order to alert the city to possible exceptional high tides — a decision clearly inspired by the Infamous Acqua Alta (IAA, to me) of 1966.

But there had been plenty of high waters up until then. Venetians had grown up with it, and most of them could recognize the signs of impending high water. They didn’t need a siren to tell them what was going on.

Or did they?

I said “most of them.” Lino’s brother-in-law, Roberto, for some reason, seems to have been born government-tropic, leaning instinctively toward what officials say and not what his eyes transmitted to his very own brain.  This was unfortunate, because Roberto lived on the ground floor below Lino’s apartment.

Lino remembers that on that fateful November 4 there had been heavy weather all day (wind, higher-than-usual tide, all the usual markers).  He knew when the tide was supposed to turn, therefore he noticed immediately that it had not, in fact, turned.  Which meant that six hours later, when it was supposed to rise again, it was going to begin rising from a much higher level than usual.

While he was evaluating all this, he looked up at the cable (phone? electricity?) strung high up across his street.  He saw a rat running along it.

That’s when he knew it was time to start preparing for serious water.

So he went to his brother-in-law and said, “Hey Roberto, we’re in for really high water — we’ve skipped a tide turn and the water’s not going down.  I’ll help you get your furniture upstairs.”

To which Roberto replied, “No no, nothing’s going to happen.  The city (I don’t know what office that would have been back then) says that blah blah we’re going to be okay blah blah.”

To which Lino said, “Listen, it’s not looking good AT ALL.  I will help you carry your things upstairs!  Let’s get on it!”

To which Robert replied, “No no, blah blah they said nothing’s going to happen blah blah.”

To which Lino replied, “Suit yourself.”

And so, two days later, Roberto had to throw out virtually all of his furniture, which was so full of lagoon water it would never be usable again.

I wasn’t there, but I knew him years after this event, and he was still not the type to say, “Boy, did I ever screw up.  Why didn’t I listen to you?”  He was the type, of which there is now an over-supply, who would have blamed the city for having erred in its prediction.

It strikes me that people nowadays have come to use the Tide Center as a crutch.  By which I don’t mean everybody should take a course in meteorology, or that the Tide Center is incompetent, because it isn’t.

What I mean is that there are too many variables in the weather (such as the wind suddenly dropping) for the Tide Center to keep up with, minute by minute, to ensure that every single person in Venice is going to know, every single minute, what to do.

There was a life before the Tide Center, and when there was acqua alta most people  were well aware it was on the way.  When Lino was a boy, people didn’t even wear rubber boots. Who had money to spend on boots?  You went barefoot, as I occasionally have done.

Now there’s a Tide Center, and instead of helping people act more intelligently (its fundamental purpose), its mere existence seems to have given people an excuse to behave like quivering bewildered rabbits.

The Tide Center isn’t there to save you, people.  Only you can do that.

If the Tide Center is predicting high water, why do so many people put their garbage bags out on the street? Does that mean they don’t believe the forecast? Or do they just not care? If they don’t care, then I think that pretty much closes the discussion on how distressing acqua alta is.  This event was December 1, 2008, but nothing has changed except the varying heights of the water.

This is a man willing to brave the ferocity of the elements to get the serum through to Nome. Sorry, I mean to get the boots somewhere to people who are evidently stranded. Funny thing is, by the time he gets home and they get the boots on, the water will be gone.

These people are dangerously irresponsible. Don’t they know they’re supposed to be frantic with worry and indignation?

 

 

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Categories : Acqua Alta
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