Venice Lagoon, ITALY

In 2016, Europa Nostra and the EIB Institute – following a firm recommendation from an international advisory panel of experts – declared the Venice Lagoon as THE most endangered heritage site in Europe.

Covering 550km², the Venice Lagoon is the best-known lagoon in Europe and one of the most important transitional ecosystems in the Mediterranean. It is protected by a range of EU and national regulations and has been inscribed, together with the city of Venice, on the UNESCO World Heritage List since 1987. According to UNESCO, “Venice and its Lagoon form an inseparable whole” and “are the result of a dynamic process which illustrates the interaction between people and the ecosystem of their natural environment since the 5th century”. Despite all that, the Lagoon faces great threats – increased traffic flow, particularly of large-scale container and cruise ships, the dredging of ever deeper channels, erosion of the seabed and salt marshes, pollution, and industrial fishing – which are jeopardizing its integrity and very existence, thus putting the historic city of Venice at higher risk.

The Lagoon of Venice has highly complex and distinctive morphological characteristics. The variety of depths, which once created a moving spectacle of lights and colours, can still be glimpsed in a few preserved areas. It also contains a striking range of environments and biotopes – from the sandy, dune-scattered coastline to hilly extents and to the surrounding coastal area with fresh water river mouths and reed banks – with highly diverse and rich vegetation and fauna.

The Lagoon’s ecology and landscape have been severely damaged over the last decades:
– The hydromorphology of the central Lagoon has been destabilised by the excavation of a deep industrial channel (the ‘Petroleum Channel’);
– The excavation of internal channels to cope with increased ship traffic as well as natural subsidence and the lack of river sediment have led to an overall increase in depth. As a result of the erosion of the salt marshes and shallows, the central part of the Lagoon has become a deep crater. The risk is that the Lagoon will lose its distinctive features and become a stretch of sea;
– The transit of large-scale ships provokes the displacement of considerable volumes of water causing silting in the long term;
– The sediment in a substantial part of the central Lagoon has been continuously poisoned by highly polluting chemical industries built on its edge;
– The fishing of Manila clams employs particularly destructive methods on the Lagoon bed.

These threats are compounded by the lack of an agreed Management Plan for Venice and its Lagoon, short-term thinking about the city’s economy, rapid depopulation and an over complex governance structure.

If the economically-driven projects conceived by the local, regional and national authorities were to be carried out, the state of the Lagoon would dramatically deteriorate. The Venice Port Authority intends to transform the central Lagoon into a commercial/distribution port. A roll-on/roll-off terminal was built last year and there are plans for an offshore terminal where containers would be transferred from huge cargo ships to smaller ones. Consequently, ship traffic could double along the Lagoon’s ‘Petroleum Channel’. Other plans include the creation of a port at Dogaletto (town of Mira) and a canal from Padua (called Idrovia), which would further increase the traffic in the Lagoon and destroy currently intact salt marshes.

The Republic of Italy retains the ownership of the Venice Lagoon. The Italian Government, through the Ministries of Environment, Infrastructure and Cultural Heritage, has primary responsibility, both legal and administrative, for this unique natural and cultural asset. The nomination for ‘The 7 Most Endangered’ programme 2016 was made by Italia Nostra.

Italia Nostra proposes a series of measures to preserve and enhance the Lagoon of Venice. This sustainable development plan would be implemented in two phases.

Phase 1, to be carried out in the short-term, includes 1) the suspension of all new projects to dredge channels, basins or reservoirs; 2) the exclusion of large-scale cruise ships from the Lagoon, to moor instead in the nearby port of Trieste (the best solution) or in a provisional mooring to be built at the Lido mouth between the Lagoon and the sea; 3) the cancellation of all major commercial port projects; 4) the suspension of all projects to enlarge the airport area; 5) the reconstruction of salt marshes; and 6) the restoration of natural habitats (e.g. through the Life Seresto Life Vimine projects).

Phase 2, to be implemented in the long‐term, involves 1) transferring major port activities to Trieste; 2) transforming the abandoned and polluted industrial area of Marghera from a container park into a science and technology park; 3) adopting financial and policy instruments to secure long-term residents and attract local businesses to the historic centre of the city; and 4) developing educational programmes to raise awareness of the outstanding cultural and natural value of the Lagoon.


Technical Report by the European Investment Bank Institute, July 2017 [PDF]