Parting The Waters

While Venice Is Sinking, Politicians Squabble

Venice, the city built in the sea, could well be mankind's most sublime achievement but it's threatened today as never before: The city is sinking. Correspondent Bob Simon reports.

This winter has been the worst ever. The tides are so high that the city's old defenses are being overwhelmed. Venice could be gone by the end of the century.

In a conspiracy of the Adriatic, the moon and the wind turns the city of serenity into a blocked sink. Stores are flooded and hotels are transformed into sinking ocean liners.

Napoleon considered The Piazza San Marco as Europe's finest drawing room. A hundred years ago, the Piazza got flooded seven times a year. But recently the waters have been coming 100 times a year.

"We are fed up of this kind of situation," shopkeeper Paolo Tasca says.

"If (an) ice cap melts, we won't have 100 years left," says Andrea Rinaldo, an Italian professor of hydraulics.

Engineers point to a $2 billion proposal called Project Moses: Giant mobile gates would separate the Venetian lagoon from the Adriatic Sea. Seventy-nine gates would pop up from the ocean floor at high tides to stop the Adriatic from swamping the city. Yet Venice, an independent republic for most of its life, is now part of Italy, where building consensus is difficult.

"We don't need these damn dams," declares Grazia Francescato, head of the Italian Green Party, which has succeeded in paralyzing Moses. In the party's view, anything that smacks of corporations and profit is suspect.

"If these dams are shut for many, many days of the year, they will actually worsen the situation," she says. "Think about the pollution inside it."

One of the Greens' proposals involve raising Venice a few inches at a time, brick by brick, as Venetians have done for centuries. Work has started along the city's lacework of canals. "What Venice needs is not one big miracle, is 1,000 small miracles," Francescato says.

Yet Rinaldo counters: "Raising the pavement of the passageways of a city would amount to treating the symptom not the disease."

To protect against exceptionally high tides "you have to separate temporarily the sea from the lagoon," says Rinaldo, one of several experts brought in to evaluate Moses.

The Greens have found an ally in American archaeologist Albert Ammermann from Colgate University. By studying the soft underbelly of Venice, he and his colleagues recently discovered the city is sinking faster than anyone thought.

Ammermann argues that since the tides are predicted to rise at least a foot in the next century, the Moses gates would have to be shut nearly every day, for months at a time, not allowing the Adriatic to cleanse the lagoon of pollution.

"They really need to redo the environmental impact studies," Ammermann says, advising it's probably better not to rush into anything for the next five to 10 years.

Moss disciples counter if Venice gets flooded, what difference will it make if it's clean or dirty water. On Nov. 4, 1966, Venice witnessed its worst flood ever when the tides rose more than 6 feet, turning Piazza San Marco into a port.

At that time everyone expected action to happen soon, recalls Rinaldo, who as a 12-year-old watched armchairs float in his living room.

It took nearly 20 years for Project Moses to be drawn up, and Italy has been arguing about it for the past 10.

Venetians like shopkeeper Paolo Tasca fear it will take another disastrous flood to shake Italy's politicians.

Store owners recently protested what they call the government's "let them wear boots attitude." "Our shops are not aquariums," read one sign.

"Nothing is so terrible happening tomorrow if we don't decide today," says Paolo Costa, a mayor of Venice in favor of Project Moses. Rome controls Project Moses' fate. And the Green Party, for now, holds veto power over Rome.

It's difficult for politicians to think long term in a country where governments are toppled once a year. Those who might OK the project may not be around when the project is finished. Even if Project Moses is approved tomorrow, engineers say it will take 10 years to build it.

While the politicians argue, the waters become more ominous at the lagoon's entrance. The gondoliers have trouble navigating under the city's bridges; no one lives on the ground floor anymore.

The city's population is less than half of what it was 50 years ago; the average age is rising with the tides. The death of Venice is happening before our eyes. Only the tourists keep the place afloat.

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