Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
Venice’s canals have hit bad dry spells, while Rome, Milan and Naples are shrouded in smog.
The January high tides that often flood St. Mark’s Square in Venice are usually considered a major headache. This year, however, they’ve been greeted as a relief.
Thanks to freak weather across Italy, a lack of rain combined with low tides has led canal water levels to drop by up to 70 centimeters (2.3 feet). In a city whose main thoroughfares are all liquid, this change mattered. Emergency services struggled to make it through some shallower canals, while the unusually low water revealed a city-wide layer of uncleared sludge, rubbish and decaying masonry caused by years of neglected maintenance.
It’s easy to understand why Venice let things get this way. For a long while, its main concern has been how to stop itself sinking, rather than drying up. And sure enough, this week, cleansing tides arrived with a vengeance. A water rise of 114 centimeters (3.7 feet) forced the use of pontoons for pedestrians in St. Mark’s Square, clearing away much of the filth and slurry caused by the preceding water slump.
But Venice’s dry canals are only the most dramatic of many problems caused by Italy’s unusual weather—problems that have hit the country’s cities particularly hard. Yesterday, the media in Milan announced that thanks to an almost rainless winter, its central canals would run dry this summer. Fish will have to be removed and the packed café tables flanking the canal embankment in the Navigli neighborhood will over look a watercourse that’s dry as a bone.
Milan’s water problems are caused by more than lack of rainfall across the city itself. The city’s rivers and reservoirs are fed mainly by spring snowmelt from the Alps, which rise just to Milan’s north. This winter, Alpine ski resorts have been seriously troubled by a lack of snow, and the water level of Lake Maggiore, Milan’s main water source, has dropped by 20 centimeters (around eight inches). As the deputy director of the Ticino National Park, just north of Milan, told newspaper Corriere Della Sera:
“If the Milanese want to get their beautiful dock back, if farmers want water from the [River] Ticino to irrigate and fishermen want their fish, we will have to rely on a radical change in the weather. … The climate has changed. This is a crisis that we haven’t seen for 50 years, one that may be repeated. Do not underestimate what is going on.”
Italy’s unusually dry weather has affected more than watercourses. The rainless winter has also created widespread smog, allowing a dangerous level of particulate matter to build up in the air of many cities. So bad did air quality become in December that Milan, Rome, and Naples each introduced partial driving bans at times. Over a recent three-day period, Milan banned all motor vehicles from driving for six hours a day and introduced cut-price public transit, while Rome introduced alternate driving days. Naples went as far as banning all motor vehicles for a six-day period and cutting central heating in public buildings.
For now, the bans have been lifted, although Rome is planning ongoing car-free Sundays to help clear the smog. It is of course possible that the exceptionally dry winter and the problems it has caused are a one-off. But as unpredictable, freak weather becomes increasingly common, Italy’s dry spell may offer a cautionary tale for the future. We may no longer be able to rely on regular weather patterns to do the dirty work of cleaning up our pollution for us.