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Italy to resume unfinished barrier project that could have stopped Venice floods

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Italy to resume unfinished barrier project that could have stopped Venice floods
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REUTERS/Manuel Silvestri
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In 1984, Italy launched a flood barrier project called Mose. It was supposed to protect the lagoon city of Venice from high tides.

If everything had gone according to plan, Tuesday’s high tide should never have reached Venice, let alone flood its basilica, submerge its squares and inundate its historic palaces.

But Venice's Mose project was never completed, and in November 2019, the city suffered its worst flooding since 1966.

The governor of the Veneto region, Luca Zaia said the "aqua alta", or "high tide", has done "apocalyptic damage" to Venice, while the mayor Luigi Brugnaro said: "The future of Venice is at stake."

On Thursday, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte visited the lagoon city, in the hope to conclude the flood barrier project as soon as possible.

What happened to the Mose project?

Mose is an acronym for “Modulo Sperimentale Elettromeccanico”, or “Experimental Electromechanical Module”, and refers to the biblical figure Moses who parted the Red Sea to enable the Israelites to flee to safety from Egypt.

It was designed in 1984 when the Italian government asked engineers to draw up plans to build a barrier at sea to defend the fragile city of Venice from the constant threat of high tides.

Work began in 2003, with the project's inauguration by Berlusconi, and should have been finished by 2016.

But the project was plagued by corruption, cost overruns and prolonged delays, and was at the centre of many bribery cases.

Such as...?

A report by Italy's L'Espresso magazine highlighted one particular case study after accessing court documents:

Their findings outlined how, in April 2013, the Italian finance police (Guardia Finanza) seized 12 million euros and bank accounts belonging to Giancarlo Galan, former governor of the region and undersecretary in Berlusconi's administration.

According to prosecutors, the bribes Galan cashed in were reinvested in luxury apartments in Dubai as well as factory buildings in Italy's northern Veneto region.

In 2014, Galan entered a plea deal for a 2 year and 10 months sentence for corruption.

The investigation into money laundering related to the Mose project involves a number of players and a network of offshore enterprises, some of them based in Panama. Galan's accountants, Guido and Christian Penso, ended up named in the now famous Panama Papers investigation. According the the prosecutors, they were helping Galan transfer money abroad totalling over 1.5 million euros. This sum was later transferred to a Croatian bank account belonging to the wife of another Galan's accountant, Paolo Venuti.

Venuti, L'Espresso's investigators reported, is also at the centre of a separate money laundering investigation, tied not to Mose but to a shoe factory: he is accused of moving around 33 million euros abroad and investing part of them in real estate in Dubai.

What happens now?

The modern-day Moses consists of 78 bright yellow mobile underwater barriers, when activated, rise above the surface and prevent surging tides from the Adriatic Sea flooding the Venetian lagoon.

All 78 gates are now in place and engineers are working on the mechanics of raising them simultaneously once tides of more than 110 cm are forecast, up to 3m.

The first testing is expected next year.

Engineers are predicting the sea defence system will be ready at the end of 2021 at a cost of €5.5 billion. The total cost, including all expenses, is estimated at €7 billion.

Will it be enough?

Experts worry that the Mose system was not designed to deal with the sort of rising sea waters that recent climate-change models have predicted.

A report by the U.N.’s science and culture agency UNESCO said Mose was planned on a base scenario of sea levels in the northern Adriatic rising some 22 cm by 2100, but many scientists fear that assumption is far too optimistic.

"A rise of 100 cm should not be excluded" [...] with the projections given in this report there should be no doubt that the sea level will eventually rise to a value that will not be sustainable for the lagoon and its historical city," the report warned.

"The planned mobile barriers (Mose) might be able to avoid flooding for the next few decades, but the sea will eventually rise to a level where even continuous closures will not be able to protect the city from flooding. The question is not if this will happen, but only when it will happen".

Georg Umgiesser, an oceanographer and researcher at the CNR and at the Institute of marine sciences, told Euronews that his projections showed a similarly worrying trend.

"In the scenario of sea levels rising by 50 centimetres, we will have to close it once a day, while it is designed to close twenty times a year, no more. There are maintenance cycles to be respected, associated costs... At this rate, in 30 to 40 years, it will already be out of date," Umgiesser said.

Mario De Marchi, Vice-President of the Order of Engineers of Venice argues, however, that it's important to finish the project: "It would not make sense to leave it unfinished because it is now considered useless . Even If it were to last for 30 years, we would at least solve the problem for that period of time."

Inspection has shown that the Mose hinges, which have been underwater for three and a half years, are already in an advanced state of corrosion.

Watch the report by Nabeela Zahir in the player above to have a look at the Mose system

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