Berlusconi unveils gate project to save Venice from floods

Italy's Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, inaugurated the building of a system of underwater gates intended to save Venice from flooding yesterday.

For the city known as the living museum, the ceremony was suitably exotic, despite winds of more than 30 knots and protesters in small boats. Mr Berlusconi sealed a sheet of parchment donated by the Patriarch of Venice, Monsignor Angelo Scola, inside a 10-tonne block of stone at Sant'Elena.

Later, the slab will be transported to Malamocco, one of the mouths of the lagoon where construction of the first of the hinged gates is under way, and cemented into the structure. It read: "The President of the Council of Ministers, Silvio Berlusconi, inaugurates the construction of the Moses System for the defence of Venice against high water. To the future memory of the world city."

Mr Berlusconi said: "Venice is magnificent, the pride of all Italy. Attention to saving this patrimony, this marvel, is at the top of my government's concerns." So ends 37 years of controversy, and so begins, Venice hopes, a brighter future.

Anna Somers Cocks, of the Venice in Peril Fund, said: "This is an excellent sign that the Italian government is taking the threat of flooding to Venice seriously. We hope very much that they will persevere and see the work through."

Activists from half a dozen groups opposed to the project, including the Worldwide Fund for Nature and Rifondazione Comunista, a Communist party, boarded small boats to cross the lagoon but police stopped them disrupting the ceremony.

Environmentalists worry that the huge scale of the Moses scheme itself will threaten the fragile ecology of Venice's lagoon. Other opponents of Mr Berlusconi's drive for big building projects suspect a dirty nexus between politicians and contractors.

But after years of argument and aborted initiatives, Venetians were resigned to Moses. On the eve of the inauguration, the left-wing mayor, Paolo Costa, said he detected "a spirit of loyal co-operation between the government, the region and local bodies" towards the plan.

But he added: "These works are not in themselves enough. A variety of other initiatives are also necessary."

Ms Somers Cocks said: "There is no final solution to Venice's problems, the city will require vigilance for ever after ... But there is no point in having a wonderful ecology if the city is four feet under water."

Project Moses will have 78 massive sea gates, 28 metres wide and 18 long, on the floor of the sea, at the three inlets into Venice's artificial lagoon. When tides are normal, the hollow gates will be invisible from land: filled with sea water, lying flat on the seabed. But when the tide rises 110 centimetres above normal, air is pumped into the hinged gates, driving the water out and causing the gates to lift upwards and stop the sea coming any further.

Venice's angst began in November 1966, when the city was flooded to a depth of two metres, electricity and phone services were knocked out and the entrances to the grand palazzi that line the Grand Canal were under water. Venice's survival was in question. Floods are nothing new in the city, but no one disputes that they have become worse. Some blame the British. In the 19th century they deepened the lagoon, it is said, to improve access for their deep-keeled ships.

But the position deteriorated dramatically in the 20th century. Aquifers were gradually pumped dry to provide fresh water for industry and homes; natural gas under the lagoon was also pumped out, and the city sank by about 10 centimetres. And a new canal dug for an oil refinery disrupted the lagoon's currents. Because of these changes, high tides became normal. Last year was the worst in the city's history, with 108 tides above one metre, sometimes twice a day.

Venetians learnt to cope, having rubber boots handy and wooden gang planks stacked in the streets ready for use. But the 13 million tourists who visit the city every year will only put up with so much, as will the city's delicate fabric.

Operation Moses, which is expected to take eight years to complete at a cost of €2.3bn (£1.6bn), should put an end to all that. As Giancarlo Galan, governor of the Veneto region, said: "This is a historic moment."

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