Water in Venice

I just spent a few delightful days in Venice. It was my third (or fifth?) time in the city, but this was the first time I paid attention to water management. Here’s an overview of what I learned. (Please add to or correct my information!)

Institutions

Venice was founded by “mainlanders” seeking refuge from attacks. They settled on “islands” in the saltwater lagoon that were basically mud and grass (much like the Dutch did, but without the tidal and storm violence). Over time, these islands became around 120 “campi” (fields), each with its separate church, common areas, and local governance (via collective action). The islands were stabilized by driving trees into the mud (as in Amsterdam) and topped by Istrian stone that looks like marble but is actually a very strong and water-resistant limestone that formed a transition layer between the trees and brick buildings built on top. The campi are now joined by over 450 bridges. (Buildings and bridges were originally wood, but they burned so often that they were gradually replaced by stone and brick, but there’s still some fire risk.)

The Republic of Venice was rich, powerful and imperialist for centuries, so there was a lot of investment in churches, palaces and other public spaces. Decline began in the 1400s, as trade routes shifted from the Byzantine Empire, Silk Road and Middle East to routes around Africa (removing profits from spices, silks and other eastern goods) and across the Atlantic (bringing far greater colonial wealth). Napoleon conquered Venice in 1797, signaling an end to autonomy and beginning of rule (or neglect) from afar.

Most people think of Venice as a group of islands in the lagoon, but the area also includes the mainland, where more people now live. The population of the islands has dropped from a high of 175,000 in the 1920s (mostly due to Murano’s glass industry) to around 60,000 today. (The population was over 100,000 for centuries and only dropped under that level in the 1960s as the mainland industrialized and families moved to cheaper housing there.) It’s important to note that 70% of voters live on the mainland, so they may not favor policies or spending to maintain a place they no longer consider home.

Drinking water

For centuries, drinking water was collected in cisterns (pozzi) underneath each campo. These cisterns were topped by well heads with locking covers that were opened twice per day so that residents could collect their drinking water. The keys were kept by the priest from the local church. My impression is that this system was robust to free-riding due to the small number of users (each household had a designated water collector) and intense social relations. I’m also guessing that anyone subject to community punishment might have been forced to leave the campo, since it’s hard to live without water.

The pozzi are no longer in use, and drinking water comes from the mainland, via the causeway that brings cars, trains, gas and electricity to the islands. We drank the water from taps and public taps without problems. I didn’t look into the cost of drinking water or state (e.g., leaks) of the water network.

Wastewater and waste

For centuries, garbage and wastewater ended up in canals, to be carried away by tides. A system of drains also emptied into canals. In the 1500s, this system was relatively advanced compared to the standard of Europe, but it has not been upgraded to modern standards. At the moment, there’s a mix of septic tanks, sewerage that gets collected, and untreated discharge (30%) that flows into canals. As you can imagine, there’s a smell. It was worst for us on the island of Burano but not so bad on Murano or the main (tourist) islands. We were told that Venice stinks in the August heat and crowding. Don’t go then.

Garbage used to be piled next to canals for collection, but the rat problem got so bad that they instituted a system where households had to bring their waste directly to boats that passed a few times per week. (Businesses use large dumpsters.) This system means that costs are much higher, but problems with smells, mess and rats have fallen. In touristed areas, there were many overflowing garbage cans so I guess the problem is much greater in the high season.

We rented a room in an Airbnb from some young people who were trying to cover their rent (four shared rent of €1,400/month). One told me that garbage fees rise “exponentially” with the number of apartments owned, which was a problem for them, since their landlord owned 7 places and their lease says they pay the cost. This system — like systems of punative water tariffs — is silly. If you want to”soak the rich,” then tax their wealth (property).

Flood waters

Venice is sinking due to natural and artificial subsidence and sea levels are rising due to climate change. Cruise ships in the lagoon area make matters worse by creating waves that undermine foundations.

We visited the “public information point” for the MOSE project that’s supposed to protect the islands by closing three entrances to the lagoon during high tides. The project cost is €billions over budget and politicians have gone to jail for stealing  few billion euros, but it seems that the gates might actually work (or might slowly — or suddenly — fail). They are in final stages of testing and plan the “hand over” in 2022, about 4-5 years late. I just re-visited the Maeslantkering that the Dutch built in 1997 to protect Rotterdam’s ports, and I am not confident that the Italians — who claim to have “learned a lot in the process” — will be successful.

My one-handed conclusion is that Venice is a lovely city that is suffering from decades of underinvestment and a lack of political will to make hard decisions (e.g., banning cruise ships). In the decades to come, I guess that there will be more problems with pollution, mosquito-borne disease,* and crumbling foundations than there will be with sudden floods.


* I was saddened, but not shocked, to see that Italian populists in the government have proposed to allow unvaccinated children into public child care centers. It looks as if the country will be seeing an increase in preventable deaths and diseases due to anti-vax lies and propaganda. I bambini poveri 🙁

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Author: David Zetland

I'm a political-economist from California who now lives in Amsterdam.

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