Big projects, small minds

The Italian authorities want to build the longest bridge in the world and a dam to protect Venice. Why on Earth would anybody oppose that?

Dominic Standish

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Topics Politics

I often criticise the Italian government, but it should be commended for approving two new ambitious projects.

In December 2001, the government gave the go-ahead to Project Mose – the building of giant barriers to protect Venice from flooding. And at the beginning of June 2002, it announced the construction of a suspension bridge connecting the Italian mainland to Sicily.

These are exciting projects. The suspension bridge would be the world’s longest – a title currently held by the 3911-metre Akashi Bridge in Japan, which was completed in 1999.

The central span of the Sicilian bridge will be two miles long, nearly three times that of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. It will be 200 feet wide, and its twin towers will soar 1230 feet above sea level. The entire bridge, including supporting cables, will weigh 300,000 tons – and if all the cables were put end to end they would circle the Earth five times.

Project Mose will protect the three entrances to the Venetian lagoon with 79 movable barriers. When tides are low, the barriers will be filled with water and remain below the surface of the sea. When tides are high, threatening to flood Venice, the gates will be filled with air, allowing them to rise up and block the sea from the lagoon.

Many have criticised the two projects for being too costly. It is estimated that Project Mose will cost $2.3billion, while the Sicilian bridge could cost up to $4.5 billion. Critics claim that the Italian government’s budget deficit and the high ratio of debt to gross domestic product are two good reasons for not going ahead with the projects.

This negative approach doesn’t take into account the projects’ potential economic benefits. Sicily and Venice are very popular tourist attractions, and both could gain considerably in the long term. In the short term, the construction work will boost local jobs and businesses – with some estimating that the bridge could help boost the ailing southern Italian economy by creating 10,000 jobs.

But the greatest objections to both projects are environmental ones. A huge number of green campaigners and experts oppose Project Mose. As I reported on spiked in January 2001, the previous centre-left government opposed Project Mose on environmental grounds (1).

When the current government approved Project Mose, the World Wildlife Fund’s Italian branch attacked the decision, arguing: ‘Today [Venice’s] destiny rests on a pretentious, costly and environmentally harmful technological gamble.’

Paolo Pirazzoli, a geophysicist at the French National Centre for Scientific Research, claims that because Project Mose was originally designed more than 20 years ago, it is not suited to the new problems posed by global warming. ‘Weakness in the project can be explained by the fact that the system was officially put forward in 1981’, says Pirazzoli – arguing that Project Mose ‘has not been subsequently adapted to the predictions of greenhouse gas buildup-related sea-level rise which have been foreseen since 1982’.

The authorities have tried to deal with environmentalists’ concerns. A €57million plan to raise the area surrounding St Mark’s Square, one of Venice’s top attractions and its most frequently flooded area, was approved on 25 June 2002. Venetian mayor Paolo Costa says the current strategy is to push through such environmentally friendly schemes while going ahead with Project Mose.

However, Pirazzoli’s views have been challenged by a team of marine engineers and geophysicists led by Rafael Bras of the US Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). After being commissioned by the Italian government to assess the effectiveness of the proposed floodgates, the Massachusetts team argued that the gates would protect Venice from flooding even if sea levels were to rise dramatically over the next 100 years.

According to Rafael Bras: ‘The bottom line is that the gates work.… To argue that the design of the barriers did not consider sea-level rise is just wrong. The barriers, as designed, separate the lagoon from the sea in an effective, efficient and flexible way, considering present and foreseeable scenarios.’

There is a general consensus that the relative sea level rose by 30cm in Venice during the twentieth century – though there is little consensus on why this happened or whether the water will continue to rise.

Mosetti discovered that an average of 2.57mm of the annual rise in relative sea level of 3.84mm could be attributed to subsidence between 1896 and 1967. This suggests that the rise in relative sea level in Venice during the twentieth century is not a result of global warming (2).

Many of those opposed to Project Mose cite the United Nations (UN) Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which has predicted that sea levels will rise as a result of global warming. But within the scientific community there is much scepticism about the IPCC’s predictions. Bjørn Lomborg, author of The Skeptical Environmentalist, says that the IPCC does not provide evidence-based predictions, but instead gives us computer-aided storytelling, basing the development of crucial variables on initial choice, and depicting normative scenarios ‘as one would hope they would emerge’ (3).

As its modelling has improved, the IPCC has revised down its estimates of total sea level rise. Its latest predictions for total sea level rise are 31 to 49cm over the next century, down from a previous estimate of 38 to 55cm (4). Yet Lomborg and others claim that even these predictions overestimate sea level rises by up to 20 percent. (5)

Global warming may well be a factor that the Venetian authorities will have to consider in the coming decades. The key question is: will Project Mose be able to cope with predicted sea level rises and further subsidence? Sea level change in 2050 will be no more than we have experienced during the past hundred years (6). Can any environmentalist prove that the sea level rise will be so great that it will make Project Mose redundant?

So why are greens so set against Project Mose? The real reason they oppose it is because Project Mose will be a significant human intervention that will alter the nature of the lagoon – and opposing man’s intervention in nature is in vogue right now. But surely intervention is precisely what Venice needs, if it is to be preserved from further flooding?

The environmental crusade against Project Mose gives us a glimpse into the kind of opposition that the Sicilian bridge could face. Environmentalists published a report on 10 July 2002 claiming the government’s plans for the bridge are ‘unsustainable’ (7).

Italy’s Green Party says it is ridiculous to spend astronomic sums on a bridge when many Sicilians remain without a proper water supply and when Sicily’s roads are badly in need of modernisation. They fail to see that the bridge could be a stimulus for modernising the island, by increasing tourism and business benefits.

Environmentalists claim that the bridge will threaten the straits’ marine life, and will be unsafe for humans because it is being built in an earthquake-risk zone. Yet the company building the bridge says that tests on models show the structure would withstand an earthquake that measured more than 7.1 on the Richter scale – even if the epicentre were only nine miles away.

As well as economic and environmental objections, some are now playing the anti-terrorism card. Post-11 September fears mean that stringent anti-terrorist risk assessments will be carried out on the bridge – with the company responsible promising that the bridge will be able to withstand a bomb attack or the impact of a plane crash into one or more of its supporting cables.

Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi has given a firm commitment to building the suspension bridge: ‘This time we’re going to do it, I promise you.’ A new book raises concerns about this government’s ‘can-do’ attitude towards the bridge and project Mose (8). Such a positive approach is like a breath of fresh air in our pessimistic times. Nevertheless, facing economic, environmental and terrorist fears, it might just take a miracle to build a bridge to Sicily and to part the waters in Venice.

Dominic Standish is a columnist for the Italy Daily section of the International Herald Tribune and runs Progress Consulting in the Veneto region of Italy (dstandish@europe.com).

Read on:

Who will save Venice from Sinking?, by Dominic Standish

spiked-debate: Global warming

(1) Who will save Venice from Sinking?, by Dominic Standish

(2) ‘Flap Project Will Save Venice’, Dominic Standish, Italy Daily section of the International Herald Tribune, 10 December 2001

(3) See the spiked-debate: Global warming. See Bjørn Lomborg’s contribution

(4) The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World, Bjorn Lomborg, 2001, Cambridge University Press. Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

(5) The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World, Bjorn Lomborg, 2001, Cambridge University Press. Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

(6) The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World, Bjorn Lomborg, 2001, Cambridge University Press. Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

(7) ‘The Unsustainable Bridge’, Virginio Bettini, Marco Guerzoni and Alberto Ziparo, 2002

(8) Venice Against the Sea, John Keahey, St Martin’s Press, 2002

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