Venice Floods Are a Sad Tale of Bureaucracy and Corruption

Ferdinando Giugliano

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The floods in Venice that have killed two people and damaged hundreds of buildings including St Mark’s Basilica appear inexorable.

The city is a fragile treasure built on 118 islands off Italy’s northeast coast. In a way, it’s a miracle that Venice has managed to survive and thrive for more than 1,000 years. It built a naval and commercial empire and created an immense collection of palaces and churches, full of priceless paintings, to which an estimated 20 million tourists flock every year.

Yet there’s nothing really inevitable about the increased frequency of these floods and the failings of the Italian state to protect Venice. Man-made climate change is, of course, the main culprit. But so too is the bureaucracy and corruption that are undermining the preservation of one of the world’s most stunning artistic landmarks.

It’s always difficult to pin the blame for one particular flood on global warming. But the data tell us there’s something very unusual going on. Last year there were 121 days of high tides in Venice, almost twice the number in 2017. The city authorities have counted the times since 1923 that the tide has been more than 140 cm above sea level, so-called “exceptional high tides.” Over half these episodes have taken place in the past two decades.

Venice is suffering from a terrifying combination of two phenomena: sinking buildings and rising water (the latter linked to climate change). A report by the Italian National Agency for New Technologies, Energy and Sustainable Development warned the city will be underwater within a century if climate change isn’t slowed and adequate defenses aren’t put in place.

Since the flood of 1966, the highest on record, the Rome government has debated how best to protect the city. It was only in the late 1980s that it settled on a project, eventually called “MOSE,” to build a system of mobile gates just outside the city’s lagoon. The development is already over budget at 5.5 billion euros ($6.1 billion). It should have been finished by 2016, but its inauguration is now expected in 2022.

Meanwhile, tests have shown problems with some parts of the MOSE barrier (the name is a nod to Moses and the parting of the Red Sea), raising questions about how long it will last and how much it will cost to maintain.

The long history of MOSE is a sad tale of bureaucratic obstruction and corruption. Environmental groups and local politicians sought to stop the project repeatedly, advocating less disruptive alternatives. Several local and national politicians have faced charges of corruption over construction contracts and have been convicted or have accepted plea bargains. Since 2014, the project has been under special administration as a way to curtail bribery.

Venice and MOSE encapsulate broader problems in Italy. The country has cut back on infrastructure investment, with politicians often blaming Brussels-imposed austerity measures. Two years ago Matteo Salvini, leader of the far-right League, went as far as blaming the Europe Union’s budget rules for the collapse of a Genoa road bridge that killed 43 people.

While it’s true that Italian governments should prioritize infrastructure over day-to-day spending whenever possible, MOSE shows adequate funds don’t guarantee that major projects are done well and completed on time. An efficient public administration and justice system are equally important.

Moreover, Italy’s political class needs to take a hard look at itself over MOSE’s failings as nobody comes out of this well. In recent years Venice has been run mainly by the left, while the Veneto region in which it sits is a bastion of the right. All political parties have contributed to slowing down this project.

This week’s floods won’t be the last. Italy and the rest of the world must act before this gem of world culture is lost.

To contact the author of this story: Ferdinando Giugliano at fgiugliano@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: James Boxell at jboxell@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Ferdinando Giugliano writes columns on European economics for Bloomberg Opinion. He is also an economics columnist for La Repubblica and was a member of the editorial board of the Financial Times.

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