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September 9, 2009

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Venice port expansion could further sink historic island city

ITALIAN authorities plan to expand Venice's port into a bustling shipping hub, further endangering the fragile lagoon and contributing to the sinking of the treasured city built on water, a conservation group said on Monday.

Venice in Peril, a British fund that works to preserve Venice, said a report it obtained from the local port authority showed plans to accommodate more and bigger ships in a bid to compete with other European harbors.

The Venice port authority confirmed it had written the report, but insisted the works will respect the environment and are necessary to deal with the growing flow of tourists and goods.

The debate illustrates the complex balancing act between protecting the UNESCO world heritage site and exploiting a sea port that gives easy access to prosperous areas of central Europe and rapidly developing markets in the Balkans.

The report outlines ongoing and future works including the continued dredging of passages in the shallow lagoon to allow larger vessels in and the construction of a new shipping terminal in the long-declining mainland industrial zone of Porto Marghera.

The port authority is spending at least 260 million euros (US$370 million) to dredge inlets and navigation channels to allow the passage of ships of up to 400 meters in length.

This is particularly concerning for conservationists because dredging and heavy ship traffic are seen as one of the causes of the rising sea level in the lagoon, which threatens the low-lying islands on which the historic city is built.

Under the combined effect of rising water levels and settling of the land, Venice has sunk 23 centimeters in the last century.

Most experts agree that the waves generated by large ships and the currents that run through the deep passageways play a big part, displacing and dragging out to sea the sandbanks and other sediments that help keep water out.

In winter, Venice periodically goes through bouts of "acqua alta" (high water), when strong winds and high tides conspire to push the sea into streets and piazzas. The rising sea level has increased the frequency of the floods.

The port authority report says the problem would be solved by the movable barriers being built to block high seas.

But environmentalists say the 4.3 billion-euro Moses system blocks shipping so they would only be raised for exceptionally high tides and would not lower the average sea level.


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