Analysis. On Friday, with the world watching, Italy tested its MOSE system, a barricade designed to block the sea from swallowing Venice. They may be turning Venice Lagoon into a swamp.

For MOSE, the real test is climate change

Even assuming that it works—and as far as we have seen so far, this is by no means a given, with all the technical failures, defects, unexpected contingencies that were predictable but ignored; the rust, salt and sand in the mechanisms, the inappropriate materials, the unreliable welds and so on—the real test for the MOSE will certainly not be the one it underwent on Friday morning, in the presence of the authorities and before the eyes of the whole world.

Like an athlete who has to prepare for an uphill marathon during a storm, but is only training with a run around the block on a beautiful summer morning, the debut of the “almost finished” MOSE was purposefully organized in the best, and the most unlikely, operating conditions it will face.

Even so, the suspense that accompanied the effort of each of the 78 mobile gates to rise from the bottom of the three inlets that connect the Adriatic Sea with the Venice lagoon said a lot about the confidence everyone has in this project, whose implementation languished for decades and which today is slated for “turnkey delivery” at the end of 2021. Some have actually promised, or at least called, for it to be put into operation as early as this fall, in the event of exceptional tides, and it is not clear whether this is a bald-faced lie or the announcement of an irresponsible gamble: Venice would act as a guinea pig for a project that has never been tested, even partially, in real stormy sea conditions, built without an overall project and without a positive environmental impact assessment (while the wheels were greased by the well-known corruption mechanisms which “helped it along” in overcoming the many scientific and technical objections).

But even if even that gamble were to succeed in the fall, that would still not be the real test. Under the doubtful assumption that it would work, the MOSE would only face the real test afterwards: protecting the lagoon and city from high waters in the new context created by climate change, with the constant increase in average sea levels. At the water’s edge, Venice is seeing those changes in real time, but the MOSE was conceived in another age, miscalculating and underestimating the dynamics of climate change.

It is an inflexible work in a changing context, as its only responsive feature consists in raising or lowering the floodgates. But if the sea level keeps rising at the rate we have seen, if the frequency of the medium-high and exceptional tides keeps increasing, the MOSE will have to rise more and more often.

“For the first time in history, the lagoon has been completely isolated from the sea”—this was the message announced triumphantly on Friday. But this is precisely the problem: unlike the alternative projects (with much lesser environmental impact) proposed at the time, including by the Municipality of Venice (and unceremoniously rejected by the government), this is the only thing the MOSE can do, if it works at all; but if it does so too often, isolating the lagoon, it condemns its ecosystem to death (as the latter lives due to the water exchange with the sea every six hours, and otherwise would becomes a swamp).

Moreover, such a situation would also condemn the commercial and industrial port to obsolescence, the vital heart of the Venetian economy, one of the few antidotes to the touristic “monoculture.” This has always been the real issue raised by environmentalists and scientists, but always ignored, postponed, covered up.

This is where we are at this point. Now the real story begins. If the government wants to do the right thing, breaking the pattern of the past, it should do more than the necessary functional verifications: first of all, it should submit this project to a strategic assessment.

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