Italy heritage group appeals to U.N. over Venice

ROME Mon Jul 4, 2011 10:42am EDT

A view of the Grand Canal and the Santa Maria della Salute basilica (C) (Basilica of Our Lady of Health) in Venice, northeast Italy February 13, 2009. REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi

A view of the Grand Canal and the Santa Maria della Salute basilica (C) (Basilica of Our Lady of Health) in Venice, northeast Italy February 13, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Alessandro Bianchi

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ROME (Reuters) - Italy's leading heritage group on Monday urged the United Nations to put Venice on its endangered list, saying mass tourism, environmental neglect and rampant construction were sounding the death knell for the lagoon city.

Italia Nostra (Our Italy) predicted a bleak future for the U.N. World Heritage site at a news conference, accusing Italian governments of underestimating the devastating effects of past and future development projects and tourism policy.

"Today, this exceptional place risks seeing the destruction of its character and what is left of its natural condition," said Lidia Fersuoch, head of Italia Nostra's Venice chapter.

She said the national group would ask the United Nations cultural organisation, UNESCO, to put the city on its endangered list and consider striking it altogether from its World Heritage sites "because the Italian government has not lived up to its commitment made to UNESCO to safeguard Venice and its lagoon".

Venice, whose majestic palaces and churches are built on low-lying islands, mud piles and stilts, has myriad social, environmental and structural problems.

High tides in the Adriatic regularly raise the level of the lagoon and the city's famed canals, flooding low-lying areas such as St. Mark's Square on about 80 days a year.

The water attacks already fragile structures, with destabilising humidity rising some 7 metres (yards) on the walls of St Mark's Basilica.

Conservationists say the lagoon's delicate eco-system has been severely damaged by landfill and construction, industrial ports, dredging, and the passage of huge tourist and merchant ships.

PLANETARY ALARM

They say a multi-million dollar project to use massive mobile barriers at the lagoon's three links to the sea, which would seal off the lagoon from the Adriatic during the highest of sea tides, is only a stop-gap measure.

"We need to launch a planetary alarm," said Alessandra Mottola Molino, Italia Nostra's national president, adding that scientists' projections see the level of the lagoon rising 50 cm (20 inches) by the century's end as the Adriatic itself rises.

"In 100 years the sea level will be such that the barriers will have to remain closed all the time, blocking the natural exchange of sea water that is its very life source," she said. "This will change Venice as we know it."

The group says long-term solutions such as revitalising the lagoon's natural eco-system, regulating tourism, and blocking construction had to be found.

Cristiano Gasparetto, a former member of the city's Commission to Safeguard Venice, said the proposed construction of a huge new satellite city on the mainland with an underwater subway linking the mainland to the islands would be an "ecological disaster".

"If we lose the lagoon, we lose the city," he said.

Tens of thousands of tourists invade Venice every day, making the city practically uninhabitable for its population of 60,000, down from 150,000 at the end of World War Two.

Italia Nostra wants a cap on the number of tourists allowed in each day, with large groups having to make reservations.

It also wants large ships to be banned from entering the lagoon and sailing into the Grand Canal because their wake damages the already delicate foundations of the city's historic buildings. (Editing by Tim Pearce)

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