The IPCC’s predictions of sea-level rise are why Italy should beg Unesco to put Venice on its at risk list

It would support the difficult measures the government will have to enact to save Venice from certain death. But Unesco is toothless

The mobile barriers can defend Venice from flooding events of up to 3m, but from sea-level rise of only 60cm Image: © Piero Cruciatti/Alamy Live News

Tomorrow, 22 July, the delegates at the Unesco World Heritage Committee meeting will debate whether to put Venice and its lagoon on the list of sites at risk. This is a pure formality: whatever they say, unless Italy has given permission, it will avoid what is considered a national humiliation rather than a statement of fact. For Unesco is deeply politicised and is terrified of offending its more influential member states, of which Italy is particularly favoured, not just because it has more World Heritage sites than any other country (55), but it pays its dues and has supplied the 60 carabinieri who make up the Blue Helmets of Culture taskforce, who are good for the image of Unesco.

Delegates have been provided with the report carried out in 2020 by the Unesco World Heritage Centre, ICOMOS and ICCRO that says, “the continued deteriorating effects of human intervention, combined with climate change on the vulnerable lagoon ecosystem, threaten to result in irreversible change. The resolution to these long-standing problems is hindered by a lack of overall vision and low efficiency of the integrated coordinated management on all stakeholder levels. These factors warrant the inscription of the property on the list of World Heritage in Danger.”

In fact, these criticisms will almost certainly be trumped by the fact that on 13 July the government definitively banned the cruise ships from the centre of Venice, which will give Unesco the excuse to let Italy off the hook. Hooray, but this is marginal compared to the major problems.

Under the premiership of Mario Draghi, now is a key reforming moment in the history of Italy, and it would send a powerful message to the world if Italy accepted the two main concerns expressed in the Unesco report—climate change and lack of integrated coordinated management of the city—both of which require urgent action.

The imminent death of Venice due to sea-level rise is barely mentioned in Italy, and yet as long ago as 2010, its most respected marine scientists (ISMAR-CNR) spelled it out: the mobile barriers between the Adriatic and the lagoon known as Mose will be able to stop the flooding for a 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, only when it will happen”.

When this will happen is becoming clear: unless a solution is found, it will be in our grandchildren’s lifetimes. It is a matter of arithmetic. Mose’s own website says that the mobile barriers will be effective up to a mean sea-level rise of 60cm and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the internationally accepted body on which most governments base their policies, said in 2019 that mean sea level could reach 30-60 cm by 2100 if global warming is limited to well below 2°C, but that it will reach 60-110 cm if greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase strongly. And because we are failing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by anything like the required amount to halt global warming at under 2°C, the higher level, 60-110 cm, is looking more and more likely.

The reason why this is not being discussed, nor planned for, is because there is a great confusion in the public’s and politicians’ minds between flooding events and sea-level rise. If you imagine Venice as a sick person, the flooding events are the acute phases of an illness, which come and go, while the sea-level rise is the chronic underlying condition that will kill the patient. Mose can hold back floods of up to 3m, and these rarely last more than 24 hours, but sea-level rise is a permanent, incremental process. The mean water level in Venice is already around 35cm higher than it was in 1897, the year when regular scientific measurement began to be made, and the damage this is doing can be seen on buildings all over the city. And we are still in 2021.

In the days before 2014, before the revelation of its widespread corruption, the Consorzio Venezia Nuova, the group of industries responsible for building Mose, did everything they could to muddle this distinction. Unlike today’s cleaned-up Consorzio, their website did not mention the limitations on Mose’s longterm effectiveness for fear that the many opponents of the barriers would say that there was no point in a measure that was not the final solution. They sank to censorship and political manipulation to preserve the myth that it was the final solution, even engineering the cancellation at the last moment of an important conference in 2011 in Venice at which international scientists were going to talk about sea -level rise.

The other major problem singled out by Unesco in its most recent report is the chaotic and fragmented nature of the governance of Venice and the lagoon. This is what they mean: the canals within the city come under the town council; the deep shipping canals including the Giudecca canal, and ports in the lagoon, come under the Port Authority, which is a State body; the waters running into the lagoon come under the Regione; the fisheries inside the lagoon are under the Provincia, and the devising and execution of flood defences is the job of the Consorzio. Cinzia Zincone, a senior administrator of public works speaking for the Consorzio, adds: “The splintering of Italian politics into many small parties, the proliferation of special commissioners, and the longstanding disagreements between the ministries of public works and the environment worsen the problem”.

This should be a moment of truth. If Venice and its lagoon were put on the Unesco endangered list it would give moral support to the Italian government in the difficult task of setting up a longterm, overarching structure of governance, possibly with some EU financing and participation, to devise and enact the protection from sea-level rise for as far ahead as the next century. For a model of how to run an effective, longterm defence system, they might look at The Netherlands’ Delta Plan, which protects the country from certain and violent destruction by the North Sea. It is a model of a publicly funded, powerful organisation that is answerable to parliament but independent of it, so it cannot be deviated at the whim of changing governments.

For if Venice is to survive for our grandchildren and great-grandchildren, this is what it needs most urgently (and, by the way, so do Aquileia, Ravenna, and Ferrara, all of them World Heritage Sites that will be the first in the Mediterranean to succumb to sea-level rise, as revealed in 2018 by a study at Kiel University).

Anna Somers Cocks was chair of the Venice in Peril Fund, the British charity for the safeguarding of Venice, from 1999 to 2012.