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Moses Parts Waters and Saves Venice

Last week Italy approved the Moses project, a controversial series of moveable dams designed to prevent Venice from sinking under the lagoon.


Water is part of Venice's charm and its destruction

The project entitled "Moses" has been in the planning for ten years, but was finally approved by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi late last week. The $2.3 billion proposal is not without its critics, however.

The idea behind the project is to construct a series of mobile floodgates that would part the sea to protect the water-locked city of Venice. It’s doubtful that the idea originated with the biblical Moses who parted the Red Sea for the Israelites to flee Egypt, but the coincidence of the project’s Italian acronym for "Electro-Mechanical Experimental Model" is striking. And the religious name fits the magnitude of the project.

The plan calls for 79 separate 300-ton flaps hinged on the seabed to rise up and block water from pouring into the lagoon whenever high tides are forecast. The flood barriers at the three entrances to the lagoon would be submerged and undetectable above the surface until high water came.

The project has been a topic of heated debate ever since it was first introduced in 1966 after a devastating flood hit Venice. Floods overrun the city nearly every year, some worse than others. It’s estimated that each year the city spends nearly 11 billion lire on damage caused by floods.

Last year the Moses proposal won renewed support when an independent panel of experts concluded that it was the best way to keep Venice from permanently slipping under water.

But not everyone is convinced that Moses will actually do the trick. Environmentalists fear the dam would harm the lagoon and want to delay its implementation until detailed studies on the effects of the water quality can be compiled.

Other critics say the project is far-fetched and sounds like a something right out of a Hollywood film.

Sinking city

The question no one seems to be able to answer is whether or not the dams will stop Venice from sinking into the lagoon.

Venice, which rests on millions of wooden piles pounded into marshy ground, has sunk by about seven centimeters (three inches) a century for the past 1,000 years. However, in the last century alone, it has sunk 24 centimeters (over 9 inches).

Environmentalists say global warming is to blame for the high water and submerging city. Building the dam, they say, will not solve the problem. Instead other protective measures are needed.

The Italian Ministry for the Environment said "the environment will be taken into account at every phase of the [Moses] project."

The commission to build the dam also approved a series of complementary proposals to help combat environmental pollution in and around Venice.

The situation has gotten so bad, that the Italian government declared a state of environmental emergency last month, fearing water pollution and the wake from boats plying Venice’s canals were eroding historic buildings.