One of the landmarks in Caracas, Venezuela’s capital and a metropolis with over 6 million people, is the Guaire river. It runs through the heart of the city, next to highways and humbler, narrow city streets alike. Through time and neglect, it’s become more of a liquid-trash highway, receiving most of the cities sewage flows. It’s also where you’ll find hundreds of Caracas’ inhabitants taking baths.
— Alex Reshuan (@areshuan) February 5, 2018
Worst water shortage in region’s last 100 years
The country has been experiencing a severe water shortage for the better part of two years. An end to a long-running drought has helped the situation some, but power outages and limited infrastructure investment have made the situation dire.
Paradoxically, Venezuela has some of the world’s largest water reserves. Unfortunately, 85% of those reserves are on the opposite side of the country for over 90% of the inhabitants. Moreover, in much of the country rivers flow at low altitudes.
Caracas suffers this reality more acutely as the city sits 3,300 feet above sea level, while its main waterways are hundreds of miles away at low altitudes. This makes supplying Venezuela’s largest city with water costly and complicated, requiring water to be pumped up mountain ranges from low lying water sources.
In the 1950s and 60s, huge infrastructure projects to create dams and aqueducts largely solved the access problem. Consistent and widespread investments were made through the 1970s and early 80s. In 1989, as part of an effort to fix contamination in the supply, Venezuela even proposed splitting the water treatment utility into 10 privatized entities managed by a new state entity called Hidroven (Hydrological Company of Venezuela). Although the privatization never took place, the Caldera administration in the mid 1990s did pour major investments into Hidroven and the water access and purity situation returned to acceptable levels.
For much, if not all of this time, Venezuela was known as one of the world’s most electrically advanced nations. At one point it had more citizens with electric access than Spain or Portugal. One of its main industries was aluminum ( it accounted for 10% of global production), which demands enormous amounts of electrical usage and dependability.
In short, access to electricity both industrially and domestically was seen as a given.
Then Hugo Chavez was elected.
From bad to worse under Chavez
Upkeep and investment all but stopped once Chavez commanded the water utilities in the 2000s. Graft, ineptitude, and often a combination of the two made it so that the state-run water utilities all but abandoned modernization efforts. Billions were spent with nothing to show for it.
The country’s own National Statistics Institute showed in a 2001 study that 231 of the 335 national municipalities had insufficient access to water. 4.2 million people had no access to piped water. Chavez responded by “decentralizing” control of the water industry into 7,000 “colectivos”, his version of Lenin’s soviets, purportedly run by the local population. They proved predictably ineffective at adapting growing demands for water and upkeep.
He further blundered by attempting to change Venezuela’s hydro plants from gas operated to oil operated. The venture was costly, inefficient, and would prove disastrous once internal oil production plummeted.
Water treatment suffered greatly as a consequence.
But Venezuelans were, by and large, still living with plentiful access to water. So long as their municipalities could continue to deliver it into their homes they could, at least, continue to consume the not-so-clean supply.
But years of compounded neglect were made worse by the collapse of the country’s oil industry.
Shortage of oil making water, processing, and delivery impossible
The damage done to oil availability inside Venezuela was a result not so much of falling oil prices—which lost half its value from 2014 to 2018—but the national oil company PDVSA’s ineptitude.
Exploding refineries, technical ignorance on its rig crews, and under-investment has ground oil production in the country to a halt. It now produces less than 2 million barrels per day, the lowest production level in 42 years.
Once a net exporter of diesel, Venezuela now finds itself importing the refined fuel it needs to operate its power plants and other utilities. Now the country has great difficulties obtaining the funds necessary to pay for its fuel imports.
Therefore, aside from further reducing the already starved budgets of the nationalized water authorities, the collapse of the oil industry brought with it a far more dangerous trend: national power outages.
Venezuelans under Chavismo are no stranger to sporadic power outages. The chronic mismanagement of the electric utilities in the country made it an expected weekly, even daily, occurrence. But they had experienced nothing like the nation-wide, days-long outages of recent times.
In 2013, 70% the country was left without power for an entire day.
Just last Wednesday, dozens of cities were left without power simultaneously. Then it happened again on Thursday.
That same week, a power station in Caracas exploded.
These nationwide outages are happening with an alarming frequency and risk disrupting what little access to water Venezuelan’s have. The bathing taking place the Guaire is only the beginning of a crisis about to take on speed.
The impending danger from prolonged nation-wide power outages
The danger from these more frequent, prolonged blackouts is two-fold. First off, it makes aqueducts function poorly, limiting how much water actually reach 90% of Venezuela’s inhabitants. But more importantly, it makes water treatment plants impossible to operate. The water has not only become undrinkable, but deadly.
This situation is so dire that entire neighborhoods have adapted by traveling, often for miles, to the nearest mountain range. There, especially after a strong rainfall, they find the cleaner, more abundant water supplies than in their city’s municipalities.
Two years ago the trend was already commonplace, as the New York Time’s correspondent Nick Casey witnessed for himself in Caracas.
“Here, under the Ávila mountain overlooking the city center, the water is free: A spring trickles out from the mountain and onto the pavement. Starting early in the morning, hundreds of people pull over and wait their turn. Their empty bottles hold their place in line.” | NYTimes
That was back when the situation was said to be at it’s very worst. Some intermittent rainfall softened the impact in 2017.
But just two months into 2018, there have already been four large demonstrations over the water supply in Venezuela. This is especially notable given the enormous risks that accompany any sort of public demonstrations in a country that regularly jails dissidents for doing far less.
Just two weeks ago, the regime didn’t hesitate to arbitrarily detain Enrique Aristeguieta, an octogenarian dissident, over statements made online.
Braving the risks involved in participating in these demonstrations is demonstrative of the escalating water scarcity. One does not simply tempt the secret police in Venezuela.
Situation made unlivable by hyperinflation
4,000% year-on-year inflation has made access to bottled water for everyday Venezuelan’s impossible. One bottle could be worth a week’s wages.
For those who’d like to travel to a nearby stream or river, the choice might also be out of reach. Many Venezuelans now find transport so expensive and unreliable that they’ve either chosen to skip most of the work week or stopped going to work entirely, finding it cheaper to stay home.
Venezuelan’s are faced with an impossible choice
The options for Venezuelan’s are limited. They can take to the streets to protest in the hopes of being heard (more likely end up imprisoned), drink from dirty rivers and mount-sides, or, as millions have already chosen to do, emigrate.
But as Colombia has effectively closed the door—reducing immigrant flow by over 50% in only two weeks— many are left behind to make do. And very soon, that simply won’t be tenable. Since the Maduro regime refuses to accept aid, can we then not assume that the shortage will also be deadly?
South American needs to prepare for a different kind of humanitarian crisis, one that it has seldom had to face at this scale: genocide by thirst.