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.

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18 COMMENTS

  1. For those who dont live in Venezuela , water supply is erratic and comes seldom for short periods and at low pressure so use of water (stored in tubs) at homes is severely rationed , meanttime in the streets you see big flows of water gushing from under the pavement , from manholes , underneath causeways causing cave ins which no one repairs and large lagoons of clean water flooding the streets .yesterday ina food queue waiting to buy some rice (2 hours) a lady told us that in her barrio they had had not water for 4 months and where totally dependent on a water truck sent every week to live.

  2. Last night my Uber driver was a Cuban ex-pat. We had a long discussion about Cuba and Venezuela. He didn’t seem to think a lot of Venezuelans. He was astounded that they couldn’t feed themselves.

    He compared them to those idiots you read about who win the lottery, then 10 years later they are bankrupt and worse off than before. He said that they won the oil lottery and they went stupid.

    He said that the Cuban embargo and failure of the USSR sponsorship forced Cuba to become self reliant and find creative ways to produce agriculture. He said that they managed to create an organic ag business there.

    • I’ve previously heard about the Cuban organic ag “success.” As far as I can tell, it is pure spin on the fact that Cuba will not pay for nitrogen fertilizers etc that are an essential part of modern agriculture and it is a failure from any objective measure. In fact, in the case of the cuban honey export business, the Cuban gov’t won’t spend the money to certify it as “organic” and so have to sell at a significantly lower price. These kinds of economic irrationalities were rampant when I visited Cuba.

  3. “82% of Venezuelans (some 28 million people) lack regular access to water”

    Not sure I understand. Three days in the tropical sun without water and you are dead. Does this mean thousands of Venezuelans are dying daily from dehydration?

    I was born in Ohio (USA) in a farmhand shack with no running water. We had a well with a hand pump about 100 yds (meters) away and carried water to the shack in buckets. You wanted a drink, there was a bucket of water beside the kitchen sink with a ‘dipper’ hanging on the side. Did I, “lack regular access to water?”

    • It doesn’t mean everybody is dying of dehydration.
      It means water doesn’t come out of your tap every day, not even every week.
      It means if the water comes is at 3 am and people run like crazy to fill every bucket, pot, etc
      in the house to fill it, because nobody knows when it will come back again.
      That is provided the water comes.
      There are neighborhood when it never comes, in the tap I mean, so some cisterns will come from time
      to time to sell it to you. So if you have the money you can buy, again, when they come.
      It also means as Gabaldon explained that the buckets will harvest mosquitoes.
      And no, you cannot go to a well. If you live in a city like most of venezuelan live, there are
      no wells in the city. I’m from Merida, some old houses in Belen I know have wells, that have not been
      used in decades and maybe are used again now, but besides that there is no well in sight.
      There are the Albarregas and Chama and Milla rivers, good luck drinking that water which is just a sewage.

  4. no food, no problem. no toilet paper no problem, no vaccines, no problem, no oil, no problem. no cash no problem and now no water, no problem. I cannot understand this. my cynical side says oil has reduced Venezuelans to utter dependency and the only exception to the no problem rule is no handouts. My less cynical side says Venezuelans are oppressed. i read everything I can but I guess you just have to live there to umderstand this

  5. my suggestion to CC would be several stories reflecting the whole spectrum of views to explain this unprecendented acquiescence by el pueblo. the stuff we have been reading the last few weeks has been pretty unexceptional. How about some articles explaining the lack of response to this epic failure of a government to provide its people with basic necessities?

    • Pretty soon, “no gasoline, no problem”. Now, when oil production soon drops below 1mm ba./da., much of it owed/not produced at net profit, with no new China/Russian loans forthcoming, we’ll see if it’s, “no food, no problem”.

  6. In another building the pumps taking water to the upper floors went bust , an attempt was made to repair them , not possible, imported parts needed for the repairs couldnt be found, the building had special pumps to fight fires so these were adapted and put to use , when they break down then the building will go without water …..this building in particular had access to an underground stream and a pump had been installed years ago for use when the main water supply was turned off . this year however the underground stream went dry , they are trying to adapt the pump for use in pumping water to the upper floors. !!

  7. Remember that Alexander Humboldt’s visit to Lake Valencia in 1800 is considered the birth of the worldwide ecological movement. Even back then the consequences of humans on the ecosystem surrounding the lake was inescapable.

  8. Most of the stories I read here seem very specific to Venezuela, and its particular problems, however this is one story that you read and might think -momentarily- that it says something universal about the human condition and where we are all more or less headed on the planet. Give or take a couple of decades.

    And then we go back to our busy days and the issues right in front of our faces, and don’t think any more about it.

    • 2.5 Billion people on planet earth in the 50’s.
      7.5 Billion Now
      10 Billion estimated by 2050
      as well as our life span increasing from 50ish to 70ish.

      Weather (sic) it is Global warming.
      A new Plague
      or just a plain lack of resources, it is hard to imagine there not be dire consequences ahead.

      Excuse me, I have to run…… busy day

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