Venice will activate its Mose flood barrier system today for the first time, as bad weather and particularly high tides are set to hit the canal city. This will be the first real test of the mobile gates, whose construction has been wildly over budget, years late, and riddled with corruption. 

Venice, in the northern Italian region of the Veneto, is braced for storms over the weekend and is expected to see a high tide, or “acqua alta” today at noon. Mose Commissioner Elisabetta Spitz confirmed the barriers would be activated on Saturday if levels reach those predicted, the Ansa news agency reports. The tide is expected to reach 135 cm at midday today, which would trigger the emergency procedure for activating the flood defense system. 

Last November, Venice and the other islands in the lagoon were hit by one of the worst floods in history. With the tide reaching 187 cm, over 80% of the historic city was flooded. Two people died due to the flooding and damage to businesses, properties and historic monuments was estimated to be €1 billion. Restaurants were submerged, electrical appliances ruined, shops lost their stock, and ancient monuments suffered damage from the saltwater. Besides the destruction, residents felt furious that the promised and celebrated flood defenses were not yet working.  

The Mose flood barrier project was created with the aim of preventing these particularly high and devastating high tides. “Acqua alta” is a common occurrence for Venice’s residents who have found a multitude of solutions to coping with the inconvenience. But severe flooding at the levels seen in November, the highest since 1966, is unsustainable. 

The Mose project consists of 78 submerged gates positioned at the three mouths of the lagoon that can be raised up in order to protect the city against high tides. The barriers were designed in 1984 and expected to be in service a decade ago. However, construction was dogged by delays, blighted by corruption scandals and has now cost over €7 billion. Finally, on July 10 this year, the flood gates were tested successfully under the supervision of Italy’s prime minister Giuseppe Conte. 

Despite the test’s positive outcome, some residents of the lagoon remain strongly against the Mose project. There is deep concern that the constructions in the inlets of the lagoon are altering the environment. Fishermen have noted changes to the morphology of the lagoon as the narrowed inlets mean water flows in and out more quickly. Sediment has been shifted, meaning some canals are now deeper than before, while other areas have silted up. 

It remains to be seen whether the MOSE project will become a symbol of saving Venice or will result in irreparable damage to the already fragile lagoon environment.