What is free, good for the environment, and has existed for over 100 years in Venice? The refreshing tap water that is available to everyone from any of the 186 water fountains found in the Venice and on the surrounding islands of the lagoon. Originally constructed in 1884 to accommodate the fresh drinking water that was being carried by aqueduct from the San Benedetto region of the mainland, the fountains are plentiful, (located approximately every 100 meters), and safe (the water they carry must comply with stricter regulations than bottled water). They are the sustainable antidote to the appalling abundance of plastic water bottles that flood Venice every year in an insatiable desire to quench the thirst of millions of tourists through commerce rather than common sense.
Marco Capovilla, a Venetian sustainability expert, is determined to change the perception of fresh water in Venice by identifying the water fountains and promoting their use. He has created the interactive Venice Tap Water map, to easily locate working fountains and in this interview encourages us to rethink the source of the water we drink while in Venice.
What inspired you to become involved in tourism, sustainability, and specifically the issue of drinking water?
I have memories, that I always loved nature and environmental things. Water caught my attention because I noticed the huge amount of bottled water used in Venice and did not see any action to reduce the impact. In July 2019 I created Venice Tap Water because I thought that a small action made by a huge amount of people could have a huge positive impact.
Prior to organizing Venice Tap Water what was your role in sustainable issues in Venice?
In 2014 I started the Facebook group Venezia Pulita, where I share information about environmental issues of Venice and suggestions for everyone to live with a lower impact. Simple and effective things that anyone can do without turning their daily habits upside down.
Venice Tap Water was conceived to educate people that they can drink clean, fresh, and free water in Venice by simply using any of the city’s 126 fountains (in the historic center alone) with a reusable water bottle. What is the biggest obstacle to everyone helping themselves to free water as opposed to purchasing plastic water bottles that are so detrimental to the environment?
Visitors are not informed that tap water is good and safe. I give them something very important: the choice, so once they are aware that tap water is ok, they choose what they prefer. Education is much more complex and comes after. The project targets both overnight visitors, daily trippers, and residents. Italy is the second global largest consumer per capita of bottled water and there is no reason for this.
The biggest obstacle? There is no public, national, regional, or municipal, communication campaign promoting the use of tap water, while there are plenty of commercials about bottled water.
The ecological damage of transporting and selling millions of water bottles in Venice is consequential. Can you discuss the harm they cause?
Let’s start saying that water is not a good but is a universal right and that there is no sustainable bottled water at all. Everything we produce, that we do, has an impact; production, transportation, and recycling too (be aware that recycling is not enough, we must reduce, we need to evolve in our consumer ways). In Venice transportation has an extra side effect: wave-motion due to motorboats that seriously damages the buildings’ foundations and the lagoon itself, also polluting air and water because boat engines in Venice are generally old. People do not realize that Venice has traffic pollution issue because they don’t see boat as vehicles, like cars, vans, and trucks, etc.
The plastic water bottles are special garbage, related to the content: one of our vital needs. Sometimes I think if they sold bottles of fresh air, it would be the same of bottled water. Both are fluids, essential for living, and existing. Would you pay for the air you breathe?
The fountains were constructed when the aqueduct was finished in 1884, bringing fresh water from the mainland into Venice. They each hold a story, often named for exemplary Venetian families. They are functional as well as beautiful. On your site you link to the wonderful ConoscereVenezia.it which gives the history of every fountain. Do you think if people understood the legacy of the fountains, they would be more inspired to use them?
I put the link of ConoscereVenezia.it because I believe that history is important, and this information adds even more importance to water and water access.
Some fountains are nice but in awful maintenance conditions, and most of them are not working. I don’t believe that knowing the history increases the use of public water, what is important is to say that tap water and the fountains’ water is good and safe, which is why we include the link to the official water analysis.
Think about the theory of the broken window, if you see something in bad condition you don’t feel safe to approach or use it, it is the same for fountains here. If you don’t have the information and you see a fountain in bad condition, would you drink the water? I believe not.
Who is responsible for the care and maintenance of the fountains? Are the new brass buttons that have recently been installed on the fountains a help or hindrance?
This is a very complicated question, there is not just one entity responsible for the fountains. It seems there are two organizations but is not clear how they share the duties on the fountains. About the buttons…they are not clearly visible, and there has been no clear communication about their installation, except what we’ve shared.
The maintenance of fountains is related to the amount of funds that the city council wants to designate. I think a deep restoration work would have a quick payback in terms of positive sustainable results.
The Venice Tap Water map you’ve produced is an essential tool for visitors to know not only where the fountains are located but which ones are actively working. How difficult is it to keep the map current and constantly updated?
Luckily the map, which we released in May 2023, is going very well. Without any promotion efforts it is being used by more than 1,200 people every day and number is constantly increasing. Keeping it updated is quite complicated because we still don’t know the timing of the opening of the seasonal fountains, and which are designated seasonal ones. We wrote to one person in charge, but the answer was not very clear. We are lucky and happy because a lot of people write us to update about a fountain’s status. Islands are more complicated to patrol so the help from their residents is even more appreciated. In April when we built up the map, I ran up and down by bike on the Lido and Pellestrina. I checked on my mobile and I realized I cycled more than 60 km that day.
There seem to be several entities that have recognized the importance of encouraging tap water usage, from the city administration to hotels and even Veritas, the company that provides it, but the efforts do not seem coordinated in any way. Is it possible for Venice Tap Water to consolidate all these various efforts into one, effective awareness campaign that would alter the perception of tap water in Venice and reduce the consumption of plastic bottled water?
There are many more stakeholders than the ones you mentioned. We are working on this, it is not easy, but is a quest and we want to succeed. Our project is well known by the city council. A lot of hotels, B&Bs etc. already use our flyer. Most importantly our website has a lot of traffic from referral sites located abroad so people tend to get informed prior to their arrival. The message is continually spreading outside of Venice.
We are more than available to raise funds to restore fountains and add more of them. We just need the commitment of the public administration because fountains are public.
Tourism is threatening to destroy Venice. UNESCO will soon be deciding if the irreversible damage being done to the city is enough to warrant placing Venice on the Endangered World Heritage List. As both a resident and sustainability expert, do you feel that Venice will survive this crisis?
Tourism is a global issue, not just in Venice and I believe that being in the blacklist of UNESCO does not change anything. Tourism is not ruled by UNESCO. I strongly believe that in the past, before the web era, being in the heritage sites of UNESCO has been the main lever of increased tourism.
Do you believe it is time to discourage people from visiting?
I totally agree, this is a general good approach for every place on the planet but requires education, and education requires studying, and studying requires effort.
We are consumers of tourism. For a better world we need to use less, so less tourism too. We should ask ourselves why we participate in tourism.
What are your plans for the future of Venice Tap Water?
We are already working on a Venice Tap Water app.
We need to create a larger network. We are already in touch with similar types of organization, and it is good to know that we share the same goals.
What is your dream for the future of Venice?
Not a dream but I would like politics to start working on Venice adaption to climate crisis and rising of the sea. Venice experts and scientists agree that the only way to save Venice is to “disconnect” it from the sea. The MOSE system is a short-term solution, things change very quickly, and the next step must be discussed seriously otherwise future generations will visit a new Pompei.
All photography courtesy Venice Tap Water
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