UNESCO Asked to Save Venice and Lagoon from Dikes

VENICE, Italy, November 14, 2002 (ENS) - On the 30th anniversary of the World Heritage Convention, Salvare Venezia con la Laguna (Save Venice with its Lagoon), a coalition of environmental groups and citizens, today called on UNESCO's World Heritage Congress meeting here to support immediate measures to protect Venice from the Italian government's plan to prevent flooding.

"With only a few months work, the number of floods in St. Mark's Square could be cut significantly," said Stefano Boato of the EcoIstituto Veneto, a member of the coalition.

UNESCO opened World Heritage 2002: Shared Legacy, Common Responsibility to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the World Heritage Convention, a global treaty that protects sites of outstanding cultural and natural value.


Pleasure boat in front of the Doge's Palace, Venice(Photo courtesy Jack's Travel)
The historic city of Venice, together with its Lagoon - one of the Mediterranean's most important wetlands - are listed as a World Heritage Site. Venice jointly with its Lagoon is a unique part of the world's common heritage. UNESCO played a central role in organizing worldwide assistance for the city after a disastrous flood in November 1966.

Venice lies between 80 and 200 centimeters (2.6 and 6.6 feet) above the mean sea level mark. The Venice City Administration is now systematically raising low points of the city as it undertakes urban maintenance.

In its appeal to UNESCO, Salvare Venezia con la Laguna warned that the Italian government's efforts to force approval of a controversial dike system, commonly called the MoSE project, threatens the Lagoon's ecosystem.

The Modulo Sperimentale Elettromeccanico, or Experimental Electromechanical Module (MoSE), involves the construction of 79 gates at three lagoon inlets. When waters rise 1.1 meters (43 inches) above normal, air will be injected into the hollow gates, causing them to rise, blocking seawater from entering the lagoon and thereby preventing the flooding of Venice.

"The MoSE failed its environmental impact assessment in 1998," explained former Italian Senator Giorgio Sarto, spokesman for Salvare Venezia con la Laguna.

Italy's National Environmental Impact Assessment Commission, whose review was required under law, gave the dams a negative assessment. The entire project is unsustainable and obsolete, the commission said. Both its construction and maintenance would have heavy and permanent impacts on the Lagoon.


Venice Lagoon (Photo courtesy Jack's Travel)
The commission noted that the MoSE dike project is neither experimental, nor gradual, nor reversible - key requirements under Italy's special laws for Venice - and thus does not respect the precautionary principle.

The project is not able to respond to fast rising high waters unless there are frequent false closures which shut the mobile dams for false alarms, the coalition warns.

The MoSE project threatens the Venice Lagoon's wetlands, said Paolo Perlasca of WWF/Italy's Venice Office, which supports the campaign for a more gradual and reversible method of protection for the Lagoon.

Climate scientists warn the dike system will be obsolete if global warming brings significant sea level rise over the next century, Sarto explained.

Both the Venice City and the Venice Province councils have given a negative assessment to the "complementary works" that make up the first phase of the MoSE project.

Salvare Venezia con la Laguna supports an alternative strategy to protect Venice, endorsed by Venice City Council in September, explained Boato, the group's technical expert.

If this strategy is used there would be gradual, reversible interventions at the Lagoon's three outlets, such as reducing the depth of their deep shipping channels, to cut flooding in the city.

By increasing the "dissipative capacity" of these outlets, the coalition says, high tide peaks could be cut by 20 centimeters (.65 feet), eliminating the majority of flooding events. These measures can be compatible with current port traffic, and they would be experimental, gradual and reversible, Salvare Venezia con la Laguna told UNESCO in its petition.


St. Marks Square in Venice (Photo courtesy CarFree)
The lowest areas of Venice, such as St. Mark's Square, which are the most exposed to flooding would be raised and protected. Pollution levels in the Venice Lagoon would be reduced.

Building cruise ship docks outside the Lagoon, alongside the island of Lido, is recommeded by Salvare Venezia con la Laguna, and, as required by Italy's 1973 special law for Venice, all oil tanker traffic would be removed from the Lagoon.

This strategy would cut flooding in Venice immediately, while the MoSE dike project will require at least eight years of construction, Boato said.

Still, the Italian government wants to start work on the MoSE next year. In his proposed 2003 budget, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has promised 600 million ($US602.6 million) for the first phase of the project, while cutting other funding for Venice - including all money for architectural restoration, environmental protection, and canal maintenance.

Anthony Zamparutti, international spokesman for the campaign against the monopoly's dike project is an incredibly expensive approach to reduce flooding in Venice, costing over 4 billion (US$4.017 billion), and thus takes money for other vital work in Venice and the Lagoon."

Other actions are needed to protect this World Heritage Site, the coalition says - the Lagoon's morphology and its hydrodynamics need to be restored, water pollution in the Lagoon and its water basin should be reduced, and the production and movement of dangerous goods in the Lagoon should be stopped.