|Protests as Moses is ordered to hold back the sea from Venice|
The Times 30/9/2005
Brushing aside protests by environmentalists, Silvio Berlusconi has announced that a controversial flood barrier to stop Venice sinking will be built despite soaring costs.
After a Cabinet meeting attended by officials from Venice and the Veneto region to decide the fate of the €4.5 billion (£3.1 billion) project, Signor Berlusconi declared that it would be completed by 2011.
"All doubts have vanished — there is no way back," the Italian Prime Minister said. "Venice is a pearl for Venetians, Europe and the world."
The project, codenamed Mose — Italian for Moses — won government approval in January 2003, after 30 years of debate and delay. Work started three months later, when Signor Berlusconi laid the foundation stone.
However, critics, including Massimo Cacciari, the Mayor of Venice, have condemned the project as a costly folly and have demanded that it be shelved. Legambiente, the environmental pressure group, accused Signor Berlusconi of wanting to leave his mark on history regardless of the consequences.
The plan involves 79 hinged flood barriers designed to rise from the seabed when high tides (acque alte) surge through St Mark's Square — an increasingly frequent occurrence.
Some experts have forecast that Venice could sink altogether within a century, with Giancarlo Galan, the Governor of the Veneto region, predicting that Venice will be Italy's New Orleans.
Environmentalists, on the other hand, argue that the panels, 28m (92ft) high and 20m wide, moved by compressed air and each weighing 300 tonnes, will cause more damage than the floods, turning Venice's lagoons and canals into a stagnant pond.
The Italian branch of the World Wildlife Fund recommended closing down Venice's cargo port and banning cruise liners as a more effective alternative.
The idea of a barrier first arose in 1966, after the disastrous 194cm flood that brought thousands of volunteers to Venice to help to save priceless art treasures. The cost of Moses has nearly doubled since it was approved.
This month left-wing protesters — including Signor Cacciari's nephew Tommaso — took a flotilla of boats to the construction site in the mouth of the Venice lagoon in an attempt to hold up work. Signor Berlusconi said that he was willing to amend the project in the light of suggestions for improvement, but the decision to build the dam was irrevocable.
Signor Berlusconi, who faces a tough election battle next spring against the opposition Centre Left, led by Romano Prodi, came to power in 2001 vowing to undertake a series of infrastructure projects, including the Venice flood barrier and a bridge across the Strait of Messina from the mainland to Sicily, an undertaking dreamt of since Roman times. The Greens said that they would ask Signor Prodi to halt both projects if he returned to power.
The streets of Venice are flooded on more than a hundred days a year, compared with only seven a century ago. Studies of detailed paintings of the city by Canaletto in the 18th century show that the waterline has risen by 80cm. Many experts blame global warming for the increase, coupled with subsidence caused by the extraction of ground water by industries on the mainland.
Signor Berlusconi insisted that the Moses barrier was "the solution to a problem that has always existed".
Conservation groups said that they had sent a dossier to the European Commission claiming that the flood barrier infringes EU environmental laws. Claudio Celado, a spokesman for the conservationists, said that the Venetian lagoon was "a fragile site of high ecological value ... The methods being used are causing irreversible damage to habitats and species protected by European directives."