Climate change, corruption blamed for Venice flood devastation

A man pumps out water from the flooded crypt of St. Mark's Basilica after an exceptional overnight "Alta Acqua" high tide water level, on November 13, 2019 in Venice. (File/AFP)
Updated 14 November 2019

Climate change, corruption blamed for Venice flood devastation

  • The government in Rome was expected to declare a state of emergency at a cabinet meeting on Thursday
  • Dirty water was swirling around the marble tombs inside the 12th-century crypt of St. Mark’s Basilica, which suffered untold damage

VENICE: Much of Venice was left under water after the highest tide in 50 years ripped through the historic Italian city, beaching gondolas, trashing hotels and sending tourists fleeing through rapidly rising waters.

The government in Rome was expected to declare a state of emergency at a cabinet meeting on Thursday after Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte described the flooding as “a blow to the heart of our country.”

Officials blamed climate change while shopkeepers on the Grand Canal raged against those who have failed to protect the UNESCO city from the high tide.

They said corruption had repeatedly delayed a barrier protection system that could have prevented the disaster.

“The city is on its knees,” Venice mayor Luigi Brugnaro said in an interview with national broadcaster RAI.

“There’s widespread devastation,” he said in the famed St. Mark’s Square, which bore the brunt of the flooding. “In all likelihood the damage from last night runs into hundreds of millions of euros.”

The state of emergency for a natural disaster will allow the government to use “exceptional powers and means” to intervene more quickly, and Conte said his government was ready to allocate funds.

“The disaster that has struck Venice is a blow to the heart of our country,” Conte said at the scene. “It hurts to see the city so damaged, its artistic heritage threatened.”

St. Mark’s Square was calm on Wednesday evening, with just a smattering of tourists walking through the relatively dry square marked with occasional puddles.

Four Venetian friends who had gathered in the square, all wearing boots, said the relative quiet and lack of tourists was upside of an otherwise harrowing few days.

“We’ve never seen anything like it,” said Alvise, 19.

Earlier, tourists lugging heavy suitcases waded in thigh-high boots or barefoot through the submerged alleys, as gondola and water taxi drivers baled sewage-tainted water out of their trashed vessels.
Schools would stay closed on Thursday, authorities said.

Dirty water was swirling around the marble tombs inside the 12th-century crypt of St. Mark’s Basilica, which suffered untold damage when an unprecedented high tide swept through the city.

It was closed to tourists as were many other Venice highlights including the Fenice Theatre and the Ducal Palace.

“We said last year that the basilica had aged 20 years in a high tide. It risks having aged much more than that in this one,” said the building’s procurator Carlo Alberto Tesserin.

A 78-year old was killed by an electric shock as the waters poured into his home.

“We ask the government to help us, the costs will be high,” mayor Brugnaro tweeted. “These are the effects of climate change.”

“The future of Venice is at stake,” he warned. “We cannot live like this anymore.”

Environment Minister Sergio Costa blamed climate change and the “tropicalization” of violent rainfall and strong winds.

“This is what is happening more and more often in the Mediterranean,” Costa said on Facebook.

“Global warming will destroy our planet if we do not immediately reverse the direction.”

The exceptionally intense “acqua alta,” or high waters, peaked at 1.87 meters (six feet). Only once since records began in 1923 has the water crept even higher, reaching 1.94 meters in 1966.

“It was unbelievable. The water rose so quickly,” said resident Tiziano Collarin, 59, as he surveyed the damage.

“Windows were blown out, there are those who have lost everything,” he said as the flood alarm rang out to warn those in the canal city that the tide, which had receded somewhat overnight, was rising once again.

The fire brigade said it had carried out over 400 operations as well as laying on extra boats as water ambulances.

Around 160 firefighters were deployed to rescue people stranded on jetties and to recover boats broken free from their moorings.

President of the Veneto region Luca Zaia said 80 percent of the city had been submerged, causing “unimaginable damage” to the city, which has 50,000 residents but receives 36 million visitors each year.

A massive infrastructure project called MOSE has been under way since 2003 to protect the city, but it has been plagued by cost overruns, corruption scandals and delays.

The plan involves 78 gates that can be raised to protect Venice’s lagoon during high tides — but a recent attempt to test part of the barrier caused worrying vibrations and engineers discovered parts had rusted.

Outside historic Venice, the Lido and Pellestrina islands were also hard hit by flooding.
 


Taliban rule out cease-fire until it is agreed in talks

Updated 25 min 19 sec ago

Taliban rule out cease-fire until it is agreed in talks

  • President Ghani’s order to release 400 hardcore Taliban prisoners opens way for negotiations

KABUL: The Taliban have rejected calls for a truce before the long-awaited talks with the government get underway. They said that the possibility of a cease-fire could be debated only during the talks.

“When our prisoners are released, we will be ready for the talks,” Zabihullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman, told Arab News on Tuesday.

“A cease-fire or reduction of violence can be among the items in the agenda of the talks,” he said.

This follows President Ashraf Ghani signing a decree for the release of 400 hardcore Taliban prisoners on Monday — who Kabul said were responsible for some of the worst attacks in the country in recent years — thereby removing the last obstacle to the start of the negotiations set by the Taliban.

However, Kabul has yet to announce the date of their release.

Feraidoon Khawzoon, a spokesman for the government-appointed peace council, said that Doha, Qatar, would be the likely venue.

“Deliberations are continuing, and no decision has been made on a firm date yet,” he said.

Ghani pledged to release the prisoners after the Loya Jirga, or traditional assembly, voiced support for their freedom.

After three days of deliberations the Jirga, which comprises 3,400 delegates, said that its decision was for the sake of “the cessation of bloodshed” and to remove “the obstacle to peace talks.”

After the Jirga’s announcement, Ghani said that “the ball was now in the Taliban’s court” and that they needed to enforce a nationwide cease-fire and begin talks to bring an end to more than 40 years of war, particularly the latest chapter in a conflict that started with the Taliban’s ousting from power in the US-led invasion in late 2001.

The exchange of prisoners between the government and the Taliban was part of a deal signed between the insurgent group and the US in Doha in February
this year.

The prisoner swap program — involving the release of 5,000 Taliban inmates in return for 1,000 security forces held by the group — was to be completed within 10 days in early March, followed by the crucial intra-Afghan talks.

February’s deal between the Taliban emissaries and US delegates, led by the US envoy for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad, came after 18 months of intensive and secret talks, amid growing public frustration in the US about the Afghan war — America’s longest in history.

Ghani, whose government was sidelined from the February accord, initially voiced his opposition to freeing the Taliban inmates.

However, faced with increasing pressure from the US, Kabul began releasing 4,600 prisoners in a phased manner.

The intra-Afghan talks are also crucial for US President Donald Trump, who is standing for reelection in November and is keen to use the pull-out of forces and the start of negotiations as examples of his successful foreign policy. However, experts say the next stage will not be easy.

Analyst and former journalist Taj Mohammad told Arab News: “The talks will be a long, complicated process, with lots of ups and downs. It took 18 months for the Taliban and US to agree on two points; the withdrawal of all US troops and the Taliban pledging to cut ties with militant groups such as Al-Qaeda. Now, imagine, how long it will take for the completion of a very complicated process of talks between Afghans who will debate women’s rights, minorities rights, election, Islamic values, … the form of government and so on.”

For some ordinary Afghans on the streets, however, the planned talks have revived hopes for peace and security and “are more needed in Afghanistan than in any other country.”

“I am more optimistic now than in the past. All sides have realized they cannot win by force and may have decided to rise to the occasion and come together,” Fateh Shah, a 45-year-old civil servant from Kabul, said.

Others spoke of their dreams to “go back home.”

“I have been away from my village for 19 years, and as soon as peace comes, we will pack up and go there,” said Rasool Dad, a 50-year-old porter who lives as a war-displaced person in Kabul, talking of his desire to return to his birthplace in southern Helmand province.

However, 30-year-old banker Sharif Amiri wasn’t very optimistic about the future.

“Even if the talks turn out to be successful, that will not mean an end to the war or the restoration of security. There are spoilers in the region, at home and at an international level who will try to sabotage peace here,” he said, hinting at rivalries among countries in the region, including major powers such as Russia, China and the US, who have used Afghanistan as a direct and indirect battleground for years.