Caraqueños Trade Food for Water During Shortage

Poor maintenance from Hidrocapital has led to water shortage, which in turn has forced Venezuelans from the capital and other regions to constantly make a really hard decision: food or water?

Photo: AP retrieved

It’s staggering that, in Venezuela —one of the 12 countries with the largest fresh water reserves in the world— most of the population doesn’t have access to a drop of water. Instead, many are forced to collect it from mountain springs, bathe under the rain and do things as humiliating as exchanging food for a bucket of water.

Mariana Montilla exchanges black beans and rice for water. She doesn’t have food to spare, but the need to bathe, wash the dishes and cook for the family is colossal.

“We’ve had this issue for a long time, and we can’t pay for water tankers every week. That’s why we’re exchanging food for buckets of water.”

Mariana Montilla exchanges black beans and rice for water.

In Caracas’ low-income neighborhoods, a water tanker costs Bs. 70 million in cash, 23 minimum wages, and families can hardly afford the luxury of paying for it. The Caracas Mayor’s Office, which claims to govern for the poor, doesn’t supply water tankers either.

Montilla lives in Altos de Lídice, La Pastora parish, an intricate area far from the last public transport stop, almost 500 meters uphill. It’s been over four months since she’s been able to regularly wash her family clothes or clean the bathroom. She bathes with a jar just for her armpits and private parts, to avail the 20-liter containers she buys for Bs. 300,000, 10% of today’s minimum wage.

Bs. 1,200,000 are spent each week in those four containers, two buckets for her, and another two for her daughter; “but sometimes we don’t have any money and I give the men who carry the cylinders two kilos of black beans per cylinder, because they already increased the fee.”

Montilla exchanges black beans and rice for water, but there are some who spend the day, with their small children, by the side of a freeway collecting it from mountain springs. Others take empty bottles to their jobs and fill them there, since they can’t pay for a cylinder. Some people profit from the crisis and now they fill buckets from their own filters, without any kind of health regulation. Of course, they charge cheaper than commercial suppliers and ultimately, Caracas inhabitants find it more convenient.

There are some who spend the day, with their small children, by the side of a freeway collecting it from mountain springs.

Now that we’re in the rainy season, despair and thirst are forcing people to fill their tanks with rainwater.

“At least that’s good for cleaning the toilets and the house, because we can’t even buy chlorine for sanitation,” said Moraima Cáceres, from San Martín. Citizens living in the most vulnerable areas are going as far as getting their water from hydrants used by fire brigades.

Mariana sounds tired when she talks, but not just due to water shortage. It’s also transport, power outages, lack of cash, the fact that she doesn’t find medicines. “This neighborhood is horrible, it’s like the wild west, authorities don’t listen to us.”

False promises

Altos de Lídice was left without water because two suction pumps in El Calvario station, 2.3 km away, are out of order. Last May, during Nicolás Maduro’s electoral campaign, the local government offered to buy new ones, but the promise was empty and the company in charge, Hidrocapital, looked the other way.

Montilla and her neighbors are aware that the situation’s due to lack of maintenance and investment in the hydrological company.

We’ve become leaders in shortages and utter collapse of public services.

She remembered how the late Hugo Chávez always said that Venezuela was one of the countries with the largest sweet water reserves in the world, and that he’d turn the country into a super power. And he didn’t lie, because we’ve become leaders in shortages and utter collapse of public services, result of null investment in social programs during his government. Now with Nicolás Maduro, we live a period characterized by intense water rationing, to the point where families may get just 24 hours of running water during an entire week.

And what’s the government’s response to all of this? “It’s a severe drought.

Protesting for water

Cáritas de Venezuela’s latest report, released last month, says that 73% of families —monitored through the Nutrition Surveillance System known as SAMAN— don’t have continuous access to drinking water, and they must frequently resort to untreated drain water to avoid dying of thirst.

Mariana Montilla is part of that statistic, just like the inhabitants of Coche, El Valle, La Candelaria, Catia, La Vega, San José, El Paraíso, Montalbán, Chacao, Baruta and Petare, where some communities haven’t been able to take a decent shower in eight months, thanks to the shortage imposed by the gradual collapse of distribution systems, which haven’t been upgraded in 20 years.

Not even hospitals have a steady supply.

The lack of supply keeps people in the streets. There are up to four simultaneous daily protests in Caracas and, despite people’s demands and the blocked streets, authorities still don’t solve the problem.

Engineer José María de Viana, head of Hidrocapital until 1999, said that the capital must receive 18,000 liters per second, which equals two water tankers with a 9,000 liter capacity each, so that all inhabitants can have water in their homes. However, the city’s getting less than 14,000 liters. If the lack of maintenance continues, it’s clear that the service won’t reach the city’s five million inhabitants.

In fact, not even hospitals have a steady supply and they’ve had to suspend consultations and surgeries due to the lack of water service.

It seems that there won’t be a short-term solution. The government’s bent on causing more trouble, since they’ve come as far as militarizing public filling stations, which many used to survive. This is happening in Caracas, but the story repeats itself in the rest of the country; there’s no water and the liquid that’s still flowing isn’t appropriately treated. People say it’s tainted, smelly and comes with a strange taste, which represents another hazard for the health of Venezuelans.

Mabel Sarmiento

Mabel Sarmiento is an UCAB-trained journalist with more than 20 years' experience covering community news, the environment, health, education and infrastructure.