Before Chávez, Eight Out of Nine Venezuelans Had Regular Access to Water. Today: One in Five

Despite the country’s huge freshwater reserves, only 18% of Venezuelans have regular access to water. Who doesn’t have trouble finding it? Mosquitoes... when the time comes to lay eggs.

Photo: The Economist retrieved.

Venezuela has over a thousand rivers that make it one of the countries with the biggest freshwater reserves in the world. Living there, you wouldn’t know it, though: 82% of Venezuelans (some 28 million people) lack regular access to water. It’s a dramatic turnaround from 1998, when 87% of the population received it regularly. This has forced many to depend on alternative sources of dubious quality, and even exchange it for food.

Families store water in buckets and other recipients that later host diseases like dengue, chikungunya and malaria. The largest freshwater bodies are heavily polluted too: Lake Maracaibo has been badly hit by oil extraction and Lake Valencia is an industrial, agricultural and urban wasteland, receiving untreated water from Valencia and Maracay, two of the country’s largest cities. Its rising waters have already displaced 3,600 people and pose a threat to other 2,000 living around its shore, protected only by a contention wall way beyond expiration date.

50% of Venezuelan health centers receive an intermittent service and 25% don’t get water at all, as revealed by the 2018 National Hospital Poll. This has forced bigger hospitals to fully depend on their own underground water tanks, some of which lack proper maintenance and are contaminated with animal feces. Last year, a water filter system at the JM de los Ríos Hemodialysis service was the source of a Klebsiella pneumoniae outbreak, killing at least four kids. The filter system had to be cleaned at least every three months, but hadn’t received maintenance in over ten.

This and more data revealing the water crisis was recently published (in Spanish and English) by the Venezuelan Complex Humanitarian Emergency Group, the same one that produced the Right to Health report last September.

Several factors explain the crisis.

Last year, a water filter system at the JM de los Ríos Hemodialysis service was the source of a Klebsiella pneumoniae outbreak, killing at least four kids.

Pollution and deforestation are key. Rivers receiving untreated wastewater are being diverted to reservoirs to accelerate their refill, contaminating them and prompting their eutrophication (the accumulation of organic material). Jungles in the river basins south of the Orinoco river, which surround  the majority of water sources in the country, are being systematically logged, reducing their capacity to catch water. Deforestation has accelerated since 2000 and, by 2013, has already reached 4,150 km2, contrasting the trend observed in other Latin American countries, even though most of these areas are located in protected National Parks.

Few places portray the extent of this ecocide as the infamous Mining Arc in Bolivar, where besides deforestation, extensive and unregulated gold mining has attracted guerrilla groups and contaminated water bodies with mercury and cyanide. The tragic environmental consequences of this project were portrayed in an award winning work from Correo del Caroní (one of the journalists involved has been missing since February).

The systematic destruction of water bodies in Venezuela has been possible in part due to the bureaucratic hell in which regulatory institutions have been trapped for the last four years. The Venezuelan Ministry of Environment (the first of its kind in Latin America) was eliminated in 2014 and merged with the Housing Ministry. A few months later it was redesigned into the Ministry for Water and Ecosocialism, finally divided in two different ministries earlier this year.

This means Venezuela is at the mercy of nature.

Now, HIDROVEN, the state-owned company overseeing the potabilization and distribution of water in Venezuela has been consistently accused of corruption, prompting an investigation by the National Assembly in 2016. One of the most famous reasons is the Guaire Sanitation Project, announced in 2005 and funded with a USD 300 million loan from the Inter-American Development Bank, plus another USD 70 million directly from the Venezuelan government. It has been halted for years.

This means Venezuela is at the mercy of nature: during the dry season, the lack of functional irrigation systems is catastrophic for the already diminished agriculture sector. In the rainy season, the obstruction of drainages and sewers leaves the whole country in deadly floods, from small towns in Amazonas, to Caracas itself.

Earlier this year, Maduro approved an undefined amount of money to improve access to water in Caracas, Vargas and Miranda, where most of the over 260 water-related protests registered this year took place.

Too little, too late. Even without chavismo in power, we’re gonna need a bigger boat for this one.

Juan Carlos Gabaldón

Medical doctor from Merida, currently studying Medical Parasitology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine