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Saturday, 19 February 2011

FEATURE: Venice: Death among waters

Since its origins, Venice has always been bonded to the waters of the lagoon that surrounds it. The sea has been the main source of wealth of the city during the over 1.000 years that existed as an independent republic. However, nowadays the main threat of Venice is the sea-level rise. Now, a titanic project attempts to save from sinking one of the most amazing cities on earth.

The capital of the Veneto is unique, and no other city in the world can equal her unreal disposition in the middle of the lagoon, less than one km from the Italian dry land. Venice was built on 118 islands, it has near 400 bridges and its canals cover an extension of 90 km.

The origins of the city of Venice date back to around year 421, when some inhabitants of the Veneto region, harassed by huns and lombards, established a small community in the islands of the lagoon. After the Bizantine campaigns in italian land during the 6th century, Venice became a Bizantine posession, despite preserving some autonomy. Two centuries later, in 721, the city elected its first Dux, establishing a republic that would last one thousand years. The development of an extensive network of maritime trade provided wealth and power to Venice, whose situation in the middle of the lagoon made it almost impregnable. It survived in 810 the fleet of Pippin the younger, son of Charlemagne, and the genoese army in 1380, thanks to the sea, and to commemorate her link with the waters, the city celebrated, every year since 1173 until the fall of the republic in 1797, the traditional ceremony of marrying the sea, whereby the Dux sailed to open sea and threw a gold ring to the waters.

Venice, Mediterranean power

In 1204, and thanks to the fourth crusade, Venice increased its empire annexing former Bizantine territories, and its power raised in subsequent centuries. Later, the territorial ambition of the republic, its expansion towards the Italian dry land and the wars where it got involved marked the beginning of the commercial and politic decline of the city. In the dawn of the 18th century, even though it had lost most of its overseas possessions, Venice extended from the Cadorino in the north, to the duchies of Modena, Parma and Bolonia in the south; and from Bergamo in the west to Istria, Dalmatia and some islands in the Aegean, in the east. In 1797, however, the army of Napoleon Bonaparte conquered the city, ending one thousand years of venetian independence.


Throughout the long venetian history the waters have saved the city several times from mayhem and destruction. Today, nevertheless, the water is the main threat to the city. The muddy terrain is sinking, while the water-level rise is more worrying every year. In 1966 Venice suffered the worst floods in decades. That summer the water level increased 1,94m in the lower parts of the city, such as San Marco square. Venice suffers constantly small floods, called "aqua alta". Every time this happens, the salt from the open sea erodes the wood pillars that sustain the city. In the 20th century Venice sinked 24 cm and a worst forecast is expected for the 21st century.

To avoid the sinking of the city, in 1975 the Ministry of Infrastructure organized a contest aimed at finding a project which could save Venice from the waters. Finally, the project by the Consorzio Venezia Nuova was chosen. In 1989 a preliminary project was carried out with the main objective of regulating the tides, called REA (Riequilibrio e Ambiente). In the following years some studies about the feasibility and viability of the project were also carried out and finally, in September 2002, the consortium presented the definitive project. The works started in 2003. The project is divided into three different fields of action: high water defense system, defense against tides and recovery of degraded environmental spaces.

The Project Mose

The so-called Project Mose (Moses in Italian) is the most important part, which concerns the regulation of the high waters The project consists on the construction of 78 mobile gates on the lagoon bed in each of the three lagoon inlets (Lido, Malamocco and Chioggia). These gates will open or close depending on the height of the tides, so when the tide is low the gates will remain closed, resting on the lagoon bed, allowing the normal flow of water in the lagoon. In case that the tide reaches 1.10m, and up to a maximum of 3m, the system will be activated and the gates will be lifted, avoiding floods.

Source: The telegraph

The operation of the Mose System is based on the placement of the different barriers that range between 20 and 30m long, in the lagoon bed, some 15 to 20 m deep. When the tide reaches 1.10m, compressed air will be blown into these flap gates. This will eject the water out of the gates and will lift them some 45 degrees, stopping the tidal flow of the water from the Adriatic to the lagoon. When the high tide ends, which normally lasts between four or five hours, the gates will be filled with water and will return to their original position on the lagoon bed. The project, which will cost around €4,600 million, is expected to be finished by 2014, though it was due to be completed in 2012.


According to the Consorzio Venezia Nuova, the effectiveness of the project is guaranteed. However, parts of the project have been criticised since its approval. Some political forces argue that the cost of the whole project is unsustainable for the Italian economy, especially in the current economic situation. Ecologist groups warn that it will cause a huge impact to the environment, given that the floodgates will alter the ecosystem of the lagoon, interrupting the natural cycle of the tides, and warn that it is an irreversible project. The Consorzio Venezia Nuova argues, however, that in 1998 an environmental impact study was carried out and given a possitive assesment by experts on the matter.

On the other hand other groups have proposed alternative solutions, more respectful with the environment. A group of engineers from the University of Padua defend the feasibility of lifting the whole city of Venice through the injection of water at high pressure in the subsoil, 700 metres deep. In any case, the only certainty is that Venice sinks further everyday.

By CDR with No comments

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

FEATURE: The red dragon at the crossroads

24 years after the last referendum, the Welsh will go for the third time in history to the polls to decide about the future of Wales. The referendum, which will be held on the next 3rd of March, will seek to cede further law-making powers to the Assembly.

Almost 3 million Welsh are called to the polls in what is meant to be another milestone in the Devolution process in Wales. The population will be asked to decide whether they want the National Assembly to be able to make laws on all matters in the 20 subject areas where it has attributions.

Currently, the Assembly can only decide on certain matters, but needs the permission of Westminster to be able to make new laws. If the changes are approved by the citizenship, the Assembly will be able to legislate independently from Westminster.

Wales is the region within the United Kingdom with less devolved powers. Currently, the Assembly has powers to make laws in only 20 subject areas, such as agriculture, culture, economic development, health or transport. Still, it needs the UK Parliament’s agreement to legislate in every area, something the main Welsh parties find unfair, compared to other Devolved regions like Scotland and Northern Ireland, which don’t need the Westminster’s permit to legislate.

However, major subjects such as defence, tax or welfare benefits will remain bonded to the UK Parliament’s whatever the result of the referendum.

The issue of a new referendum about the cession of powers to the Assembly has aroused ignited discussions among Welsh citizens. Wales is currently the poorest region of the whole United Kingdom, with an average per capita income of less half of London’s. Indeed, large areas of Wales have a GDP of 67% of the British average. Moreover, the unemployment rate is bigger in Wales (8.4%) than in the rest of the country (average of 7.9%). The whole region was declared Objective 1 by the European Union, which brought in over a billion pounds worth of European aid in the last years. However this funding has failed to achieve the expected economic regeneration.

On the other hand Wales faces a difficult economic situation due to the recent cuts on the public spending. Despite the spending review hasn’t been massive in the devolved regions, it still implies that Welsh will lose a 7.5% of their budget between 2010-2011 and 2024-2015. Indeed the cuts in Wales will be higher than in the other devolved regions. Scotland will lose a 6.8% of its public budget and Northern Ireland a 6.9%. Precisely one of the historic demands of the National Assembly is to have greater tax powers, which will allow Wales to spend a 15% more of what it spends.

Background for Devolution in Wales

The referendum of the 3rd of March will be the next step in the road to self-government in Wales. Previously, the Welsh voted in two referendums linked to the cession of powers, the first time the region had the opportunity of getting some self-government powers since the Union Act was passed by Henry VIII between 1536 and 1542, uniting Wales and England. Until 1967, any law passed by Parliament which referred to England had to be automatically applied also in Wales. It was not until the beginning of the 20th century that Wales was given a separate identity with the creation of the Welsh Secretary of Education and the Minister of State.

The Devolution process was opened in Wales in the late 70s, and in 1979 the Welsh had the opportunity to vote on the first referendum ever on the cession of powers. The voters were asked whether they wanted the provisions of the Wales act of 1978 to be put into effect. The results, however, showed that a vast majority of the population (79.7%) rejected this first attempt on the creation of a Welsh Assembly and the cession of certain powers from Westminster to it.

Twenty years later, in 1997, a second referendum on the matter was held both in Scotland and Wales. In this case, Welsh were asked whether they supported the creation of an assembly for Wales with devolved powers that, unlike in Scotland, wouldn’t include any tax-varying powers. This second referendum was approved with only a 50.3%, a difference of barely 7.000 votes. The National Assembly for Wales was finally set up in 1999.

Source: The Economist

Yes and no campaigns

During January two campaigns have been launched to inform the voters about the referendum options. All the four parties in Wales (Plaid Cymru, Welsh Labour, Welsh Conservatives and Welsh Liberal Democrats) back the Yes option. The Yes campaign defends the cession of more powers to the Assembly as an important step for Wales, given that “time and money are being wasted” as the Assembly needs Westminster’s permission to legislate.

Aled Edwards, ex member of the All Wales Convention and speaking on behalf of the “Yes to Wales” campaign said that “it is not healthy for any democracy to have to wait years to legislate. It takes many months to get the permission from Westminster”. Edwards also added that the fear of some people to the Devolution process is unjustified. “There are no good arguments to vote no. This referendum won’t lead to the independence of Wales, those who say that are mistaken”, said.

Edwards also warned about the future scenario if the Welsh decide to vote no. “Devolution has made Wales a more equal place. If we vote no, the current process will be stopped, we will have to wait. It would be disastrous. It is not only a matter of legislation. By voting yes we are telling Westminster that we want to legislate on our own, that we are able to do it”, explained Edwards.
On the other hand, the opposing No campaign, launched by the independent pressure group “True Wales”, argue that the Assembly has failed to achieve what was promised in 1997. Nigel Bull, spokesperson of “True Wales”, stated that “when we voted for an Assembly we were expecting something different. We didn’t vote for this. We want a complete reform of the Assembly and the way it is managed”.

According to Bull, the Assembly has been unable to manage the achieved powers in a proper way. “We wasted hundreds of millions of pounds. Hundreds of companies got £ 1-million grants for nothing”, said.

However, Bull argues that “True Wales” is not against Devolution. “We are strong believers in Devolution, but not like this. We didn’t vote for what we have right now. I voted yes in the referendum in 1997, and I still believe in Devolution, but enough is enough”, stated.

Source: Lonely Planet

The road to independence?

The demands of independence for Wales are currently backed only by a small percentage of the citizenship, and even though the Devolution process has given a new prospect to the Welsh identity, it is unlikely that Wales will become an independent state in the next years.

One of the main reasons why is improbable that Wales achieve independence, traditionally has been said, is the size and state of the economy. Wales has a small economy based mainly in the first sector that won’t be able to compete as an independent state.

However, the referendum of the 3rd of March is seen by some people as a chance to get closer to the idea of a fully self-governed state.

The polls are addressed to British citizens, qualifying Commonwealth citizens, Irish and EU citizens, and the voters will be able to vote by person on the very same day of the referendum, by post or by proxy.

By CDR with 1 comment

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

FEATURE: The spanish economic hangover

Source: Reuters

August 27th, 2010. Sergio wakes up. He feels tired. As an editor and technical director, he has been working in the design of the new show that the TV channel where he works will offer from September. But he also feels worried. Yesterday night he received a phone call. The director of the TV wanted to meet all the workers the day after. Today. In the last months the TV has been struggling to survive the economic crisis. Up to ten workers have been fired. Wages have been reduced.

Sergio arrives. All his colleagues are already there. He can see their worrying faces. Juan, the Director, comes with another guy. He must be one of these important persons who take serious decisions. Juan starts speaking. He stops. He struggles to continue. "The owners just decided to close this TV. It was the only way to balance the accounts. We are all sacked. All of us".

EU figures show that Spain is currently the Eurozone's fourth biggest economy. According to the Spanish Statistics Institute, its unemployment rate peaked at 20% during this year, the highest rate among all the European Union states. Its national debt rose to 64,4% of its GDP at the end of this year and its Public Sector has a debt of over a 50% of the GDP , according to the Spanish Savings Banks' Association. Three years after the advent of the economic crisis, Spain's economy hasn't found the way to recovery.

"The forecast for our budget deficit is 10%. We have an unemployment rate of 20%. Our pension system is bankrupt. We can't have our own monetary policy. We have almost 3 million civil servants and 17 different public administrations. Our building industry is collapsing and tourism is in its lowest peak. The Spanish economy is going wrong, without initiatives, with dreadful perspectives and without a stable structure" , says Carlos Sánchez-Cutillas, Spanish economist and member of the Valencia School of Economists.

Sergio is just one of the 4 million Spaniards that can't find a job in their own country. Whereas the rest of the Eurozone slowly starts growing up again, Spain is unable to overcome the crisis. Is one of these peripheral countries which have been badly hit by the financial crisis. But why does the situation in Spain remain so severe?

"We are in a bad situation because we don't have a proper industrial structure. We never stimulated investigation and development... What happened is that when we joined the European Union in 1986 we found a rich Europe which was keen to fund our development, because they needed new markets. They gave us millions of pesetas before and euros later to stimulate our industry, our services, to build roads... But now these funds are over, and Spain has wasted these 25 years of free money" , explains Sánchez-Cutillas.

Source: Seeking Alpha / Instituto de Crédito Oficial

Carlos Alfonso, Income Tax Inspector at the Spanish Ministry of Economy, points out that the building industry was one of the engines which boosted Spanish economy. "Spain relied an important part of its economic growth on a speculative sector. Any normal income generated in Spain by an economic activity was taxed by a 45%. But benefits derived from buying and selling flats were taxed by an 18%. That created a huge speculative activity. For example if I earned €1.000.000 in my job, I had to pay €450.000, whereas if I bought five flats and then sold them for €1.000.000 each, I would only have to pay €180.000 per flat, making fast money" , says Alfonso.

Property prices have fallen 22.5% since 2007, and 1.4 million homes remain unsold, according to Seeking Alpha . Tourism, the other economic sector in which Spain based its growth, was badly hit during the crisis. Although Spain is one of the leading touristic destinations in the world, Spanish and foreign tourists started cutting their spendings and saving money by not going on holiday. For over 4 million Spaniards -a 20% of the whole Spanish workforce and a 40% of young people, according to Seeking Alpha - holiday trips are a luxury they simply cannot afford right now because they are unemployed. Like Sergio.

"It is not coincidence that charity institutions such as Casa de la Caridad or Cáritas have registered a vast increment of people who come to these institutions in search of aid. Families that a few years ago didn't need any help are queueing at the entrance of these institutions asking for food" , states Spanish Sociologist Óscar García. However, García warns that we shouldn't only blame on politics or economists: "Many people preferred closing their eyes and believing that everything was going well, that the Spanish economy was rising very fast. Then they decided that they would ask for a loan and go on holidays to an exotic destination, or they bought a fancy car while they actually were paying mortgages they couldn't assume" .

Spaniards look forward to the future. The Government's forecast for 2011 shows a tiny recovery, with an economic growth of 1,3% for the first time in the last three years. But the European Commission lowered this forecast to 0,7% in 2011 and 1,7% in 2012; and also forecasted an increment in the unemployment rate, which will reach 20,2% in 2011 before lowering to 9,2% the following year, showing that Spanish Prime Minister Zapatero will have to work harder on the matter.

The Government has just launched a special package of measures in order to cut spendings and boost the economy, such as ending the monthly €426 wage for unemployed people and selling parts of public-owned companies and institutions -airports, national lottery...- but they will prove insufficient, experts say. Spanish public spending reached €350,213 millions in 2010, 20,317 more than in 2009 and 35,691 more than in 2008, according to the Ministry of Economy and Finance.

Source: Seeking Alpha / Instituto de Crédito Oficial

"The Spanish government has been giving public aids and funding to everybody, has increased the public spendings without taking into account the principles of efficiency and economy that should be regarded in every important decision. Because of this, the Public Debt has reached a peak of 9,2% in 2010, which will lead to an increment of taxes and cuts" , explains Alfonso Pérez-Pretel, Spanish economist and President of Iberaudit auditing association.

The current situation of some EU peripheral countries such as Greece, Ireland and Portugal has raised the topic of a possible bailout for Spain. Greece and Ireland had to be saved by the EU. Portugal seems to need a bailout. It is not that clear in the case of Spain. Spanish economy is two times the size of Ireland, Greece and Portugal's economies combined.

"Europe can't save us. Our economy is much bigger than Ireland's, Portugal's and Greece's. But what is rather likely to happen is that the EU will fund our economy, because we are in debt with Italian, German and french banks, and therefore they can't let us die. What Spanish economy needs is a change in the Spanish society", states Sánchez-Cutillas.

"We need a political agreement to restructure the Public Sector, axing those organisms and institutions which aren't strictly necessary. We would avoid duplicities in the different administrations and unnecessary spendings, decreasing our deficit and being able to invest in generation of employment" , says Pérez-Pretel.

November 19th, 2010. Sergio wakes up. He hasn't found anything yet. Anything related to his former job position. He is now open to anything. He has gone to few interviews for a job position as a waiter. He hasn't been selected. He is the face of the economic crisis in Spain. He is just one of the over 4 million Spaniards victims of an economic turmoil which will take years to overcome.

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