Venice is so famous that bits of it have been copied – not very well – all over the world, from Las Vegas to Doha. The golden link between East and West, it was the most important town in Europe at the end of the Silk Route until the 16th century. Its ships plied the Mediterranean and brought back spices, silks, metalwork and luxuries for a rougher, more primitive Europe. As Venice grew very rich and its merchants built sumptuous houses of stone on its canals, traders from many nations came to live there. Indeed, it has been famous for so long in the Middle East that it is one of the few cities in the West to have been given its own special name in Arabic, Al Bunduqqiya, although no one can quite agree how it came by that name.
With its network of canals lapping against magnificent multi-coloured buildings and plied by vaporettos and gondolas, its shadowy bridges and dazzling architecture reflecting its 1,200-year history, everyone can evoke an image of La Serenissima in their mind’s eye. A total of 25 million visitors a year go there to see whether the reality is as good as they imagine.
What very few realise is that it might not survive into the next century because of rising sea levels due to climate change. This month's floods have been a wake-up call to the world. On the night of November 12, sirens dotted around the city to warn of exceptionally high tides sounded their most frightening warning: four rising notes that signified the water would rise to at least 140 centimetres above mean sea level. But it kept rising and rising, until it reached 187cm, until it was thigh-high in St Mark's Square and 90 per cent of Venice was under water. The greatest treasure of the city, the 900-year old St Mark's Basilica, all gold mosaics and purple porphyry with precious inlaid floors, saw its lower register entirely flooded and the entrance, with its richly coloured marbles, submerged in 70cm of water. The luxurious Gritti Palace hotel, the universities, schools, houses, shops, offices and libraries of the city, were all invaded by acqua alta, the second highest tide since records began in 1871. It affected rich and poor, old and young.
The waters returned to the great golden church twice a day, with every high tide, for five more days. Its restoration architect Mario Piana said: “St Mark’s is like a person who has been exposed to radiation. On day one, nothing seems to be the matter, but then the hair, the teeth begin to fall out.”
This ghastly comparison applies to the whole of the city, not just in terms of its buildings but also the psyche of the Venetians. For they are losing hope and faith; hope that the authorities will do their job and protect them, and faith that the mobile barriers between the sea and the lagoon that they were promised in the 1990s will actually work.
The Mose project consists of 78 enormous steel gates, each weighing 300 tonnes, which can be raised to stop water from the Adriatic gushing into Venice’s lagoon when tides rise to dangerous levels. Construction on these barriers finally began in 2003 and have cost €6 billion (Dh24.4bn) so far, but they could not be raised on that terrible night because they are only 93 per cent finished. Or so say the authorities, but no one knows whether to believe them because the Consorzio Venezia Nuova, the builders of the barriers, bribed the independent supervisory body that should have made proper reports of progress and any problems. A lengthy investigation resulted in 35 people being arrested for kickbacks, extortion and money laundering, including Venice’s mayor Giorgio Orsoni and Giovanni Mazzacurati, the head of Consorzio, who reached a plea bargain and died in September while under house arrest. Now technical flaws are being found, but the general public does not know whether they are serious or not.
Consorzio also suppressed discussion of the fact that the barriers would have a limited usefulness in the face of rising sea levels, so how to deal with climate change is a conversation the Venetians are only now beginning to have, along with the rest of the world.
It is late, but better late than never. It is no coincidence that the places where people have drowned in floods are furthest ahead in their planning (doubtless the Venice barriers would have been finished had anyone died in the great flood of 1966, when the water reached 194cm).
After severe floods in southern England in 1953, with more than 300 fatalities, London was eventually given protection by a mobile barrier on the river Thames in 1982 that has since had to be closed 152 times. There is no doubt that the British capital would have been catastrophically affected without it. In the Netherlands, more than 1,500 people died in the same 1953 North Sea floods that followed a heavy storm. The country would not survive today without its immense, interconnected, ecologically advanced protection system that includes nine dams and four storm-surge barriers.
The rest of us have difficulty feeling the same sense of urgency in our guts and we are full of doubt. Are the scientists right in their predictions? Whom should we believe: those who say that the sea level will rise by 47cm or 147 cm? And if there is uncertainty, is there any point in doing anything? And how much are we prepared to compromise our convenience today for the sake of our grandchildren's and their grandchildren's futures?
But most of us sense that the natural world is changing, from the unprecedented fires in California and Australia, to the melting glaciers and ice-caps in the Arctic and Antarctic, to the droughts, year after year, in Africa.
Without taking a course in environmental science, here is where to start getting informed. Go to the website of the IPCC, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which is the most authoritative scientific body on this subject in the world. It takes the published, peer-reviewed research of hundreds of reputable climate scientists and finds the points on which the greatest number agree. It has produced five reports so far and the predictions in each of them about the rise in temperature and sea level have turned out to be true; indeed, sometimes they have underestimated the situation. Read the summaries of these reports because this really matters. This is so important that you need to know what is happening when you make any major decision, from how to lead your life day to day, to where you should buy your house.
So far as an important part of the world’s heritage, including Venice, is concerned, the University of Kiel in northern Germany has measured the IPCC’s predictions of sea-level rise against the 49 Unesco world heritage sites around the Mediterranean that are 10 metres or less above mean sea level. In Italy, where the sea-level rise has been estimated to be more than 1.46m, not only Venice but the whole of the north-east Italian coast, with the Romano-Byzantine monuments of Ravenna and the Renaissance city of Ferrara, is likely to be lost, unless extraordinary measures are taken. So are the medina of Tunis and the ancient city of Carthage, while the historic centre of Istanbul is at moderate risk.
The churches of Ravenna could, in theory, be moved, as the temples of Abu Simbel were in the 1960s to save them from the Aswan Dam. The Venice lagoon could, with some difficulties, be cut off from the sea, but there is no remedy for the town of Ferrara, the medina of Tunis and the archaeological remains of the great city of Carthage. What the flooding of Venice, exceptional as it may be, warns us is that it is urgent for all coastal cities – including those of the UAE – to study what will happen to them under such scenarios.
Anna Somers Cocks was chairwoman of the Venice in Peril Fund from 2000-2012 and is the founding editor of The Art Newspaper. She is based in Italy