Saturday, the 16th of November

Talking points

Gaza again visited by Israeli jets. PHOTO: Ali Jadallah / Anadolu
  1. Israeli and Gazan militias called a ceasefire after days of deadly fighting
  2. Spain's fourth election in as many years boosted the far-right
  3. The first public impeachment hearings transfixed Capitol Hill
  4. Alibaba's Singles' Day event garnered $38.4 billion in sales
  5. Cyclone Bulbul displaced millions and killed 20 in India and Bangladesh
  6. Hong Kong lurched through another deadly week of protests
  7. Turkey started repatriating foreign ISIS fighters
  8. Google came under fire for its secret handling of health records
  9. Trump aide Stephen Miller was unmasked as a white nationalist
  10. China's industrial output slowed amid trade war uncertainty

Deep Dive

Basilica San Marco is looking a little damp. PHOTO: Manuel Silvestri / Reuters

Venice has its issues. The locals face soaring rental prices, a persistent garbage crisis and the intrusion of enormous passenger liners in their lagoon. Every year, 25 million tourists are disgorged from said ships (and planes, trains and buses) only to find themselves dealing with crowded streets, exorbitant prices and the odd pick-pocket. Meanwhile, looming above Venetians and tourists alike are some of the largest and most spiteful seagulls on the planet. But all of these difficulties seem like quibbles compared to the most recent one: Venice is being lost beneath the waves.

The floating city

Venice's prized epithet of 'the floating city' took on water this week when heavy rains and 100km/h winds saw water levels rise by 1.87 m. So far two lives have been lost in the flooding and the grand piazzas are under nearly two metres of water, as are hundreds of shops and homes. A state of emergency has been declared in the sodden city and damages are estimated to run into the hundreds of millions of euros . For the uninitiated, t he city is built on a series of 118 islands in the middle of a saltwater lagoon. Usually, the water-level in the lagoon varies by around 50cm, though exceptionally high tides in the Adriatic Sea can flood in and cause what the Venetians call acqua alta. Venetians had by-and-large adapted, albeit grudgingly, to having an extra metre of water in winter. But on Tuesday night the high tide was just shy of the city's worst-ever flood (in 1966).

Basilica San Marco ranks amongst the finest examples of Italo-Byzantine architecture in the world. It was constructed in the 9th century to house the corpse of Saint Mark the Evangelist, which had been stolen from Egypt by devious Venetian traders and squirrelled away across the Mediterranean in a barrel of pork fat. It was an ignominious start, but Venice interred its saint in a place of pride next to the Doge's (the Venetian ruler's) own palace. In the last 1,200 years this basilica has only flooded six times. And four of those floods have occurred in the last 20 years. In 2019 the true heritage of the basilica was spared (the best mosaics are above your head, not on the ground), but the same cannot be said of Venice's numerous other galleries and historic buildings. Major cultural institutions have closed en masse to protect their priceless works, and the Venice Biennale (which stops for no man) has closed the doors of the Arsenale gallery.

Moses and the Lion of Saint Mark

There are a number of reasons why the intensity and frequency of floods is worsening. The most obvious, though not the most serious, is that Venice is sinking . Structures across Venice drop by 1mm every year, and the over-extraction of groundwater has guaranteed that this trend will not only continue but likely accelerate. Second is the continual dredging of the lagoon to make way for larger and larger passenger ships. The lagoon's own silty defences against acqua alta have been overcome by human development. But ultimately, the floods are, in the words of Venice Mayor Luigi Brugnaro , "the result of climate change". In a typically Italian (and operatic) moment of irony, the council of the wider Veneto region had voted on Tuesday to reject a number of proposed measures to tackle climate change. That very night the council chambers on the Grand Canal were flooded.

It's not that Venetians weren't concerned about flooding. After the 1966 floods the government tasked engineers with finding a solution to acqua alta. A series of massive floodgates was proposed – an infrastructure project of colossal scale – and work was belatedly begun in 2003. The Module Sperimentale Elettromeccanico, named for the biblical figure Moses, is a series of 78 barriers tethered to the seafloor at the entrances to the Adriatic Sea. The idea behind it is that when the tide rises too high the barriers can be raised to seal off the lagoon. But the €6b project, which should have been completed years ago, has been dogged by delays and regular corruption scandals . Needless to say it is a source of great anger for the locals.

After Saint Mark's body arrived in Venice, his winged lion totem was adopted by the city. It's a striking beast: one forepaw rests on water, to symbolise Venice's dominion of the seas, the other rests on a bible, for obvious reasons. In the likely scenario that Moses fails to protect the city from future floods like this, Venetians may well need wings of their own.


WHO gives Ebola vaccine the nod

In December 2013 a two-year-old named Emile Ouamouno came into contact with a member of the large Angolan free-tailed bat colony near his home. Locals say that boys from the village had found bats nesting in a kola tree and killed some for food. Little Emile's end came swiftly, and he was followed by many more within his town as the Ebola virus jumped from family member to family member. It would prove to be the start of the world's largest Ebola outbreak in history. Over 11,300 people would die painful deaths from the haemorrhagic fever, mostly in the poor neighbouring countries of Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone.

The overall mortality rate was high : two in five who caught the disease perished. At the time there was no cure, no vaccine and no therapeutics available to medical responders. That changed this week, when the World Health Organisation (WHO) prequalified an Ebola vaccine developed by Merck, the American pharmaceutical giant. In just five years – the blink of an eye in the field of therapeutics regulators – the creators, and the authorities, tested the efficacy and safety of the vaccine and came up with aces. The good news couldn't come soon enough in a northern corner of the Democratic Republic of Congo where another outbreak of Ebola has claimed some 2,000 lives since mid-2018.

Morales supporters take to the streets. PHOTO: Henry Romero / Reuters

On the geneaology of Morales

Evo Morales' three terms as President of Bolivia came to a sudden end late last weekend. A disputed election saw people on the streets, and late last week the army withdrew its support for Morales. The former president fled, seeking temporary asylum in Mexico, while his followers (who number half the country) are themselves now on the streets in anger . August newspapers and journals in the country have cautioned against using the word 'coup' to describe what has taken place. There are, without question, some good reasons for that. Morales engineered, lost, and then ignored, a referendum that would have allowed him to run for a hitherto illegal fourth term. The country's highest court controversially ruled in his favour (directly contradicting the Constitution) so he ran anyway. The trimmings of yet another South American strongman.

And yet, we ought to question the media narrative too. Consider this: a wildly popular indigenous president built a plurinational state of equal rights and opportunities for Bolivia's 36 tribes. In the process he caused great consternation, and reaction, among Bolivia's light-skinned elite who were used to ruling without the blessing of indigenous groups. That president has now been removed from office by a military chief trained at the Pentagon's School of the Americas. (Other graduates of that institution include Argentinian Dirty War torturers, and a bevy of right-wing throat-slitters who were active in Central America's civil wars during the 1980's.) An obscure right-wing politician , Jeanine Áñez, has been elevated to interim president (unlawfully, without a quorum in the Senate) and has been cheered on, not only by the military establishment, but also by that noted fan of military rule - Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil. There are no indigenous Bolivians in the cabinet Áñez has chosen.

But this time, we're being told, it's not a coup.

The Best of Times

Where can we get one? PHOTO: AFP

Reclaimed from the dustbin of history

From time to time, strange creatures wander out of Vietnam's dense and mountainous jungles. Three decades ago it was the large and gazelle-like bovine saola. This week it's the long-forgottten silver-backed chevrotain , a delightful deer the size of a large rabbit. It's the first time one has has been recorded in 80 years, which gives us a measure of hope that there's still a few Thylacine lurking about the Tasmanian high country.

Consigned to the dustbin of history

Thanks to the labours of scientists in Singapore, animal testing may soon become a thing of the past. Human skin, or an analogue of it , can now be printed in-vitro. The end product is a mix of skin cells from donors and collagen that can be used to test toxic chemicals and all manner of products. That ought to save a good chunk of the hundreds of millions of rats, mice, rabbits, guinea pigs and other animals that are sacrificed on the altar of science and beauty.

The Worst of Times

Vehicle pollution is a public health crisis. PHOTO: Martin Godwin / The Guardian

Save your brain, take the train

All petrol-burning cars, but particularly ones that use diesel, produce ultra-fine particles of pollution. In areas with heavy road congestion, this microscopic matter builds up in all sorts of unwanted places – one of them being your brain. New research from McGill University in Canada has established a link between the carcinogens these pollution particles carry, and brain tumours.

Rats out to finish what they started in 1347

Two patients from the Chinese province of Inner Mongolia are being treated in Beijing for a severe and viral form of the plague . No, it's not the bubonic type, it's the pneumonic type.

Weekend Reading

Quote of the week

"I think that the government said that they made a mistake."

– Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi responds to a question about a primary investor, Saudi Arabia, and the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. We all make mistakes: who among us hasn't sent assassins to dismember and behead those who slight us? Khosrowshahi has since fully retracted his statement. It seems he too made a mistake.

Headline of the week

Pensioner who 'drove without license for 50 years' finally caught after crash: 'All good things must come to an end'

The Independent .

Special mention

Goes to whoever designed WeWork's toxic phone booths .

Some choice long-reads

Tom Wharton