In Venezuela, Lack of Environmental Planning Is More Deadly Than Climate Change

We don’t know if it’s raining more in Venezuela or not, because the government is inefficient at collecting enough data. What’s evident, experts say, is that the State ignores the lessons from past catastrophes

Photo: Composición de Sofía Jaimes Barreto

On the night of Saturday, October 8th, the Los Patos creek—along with others—overflowed after several days of heavy rain. Mudslides walled off the lower part of the town of Las Tejerías, with some 55,000 inhabitants, in Aragua. At the time this piece is published, at least 36 people are known to have died and more than 50 remain missing. As rescue teams arrived to find trails of debris and torn-down trees in the mud, authorities quickly blamed the tragedy on climate change.

However, according to Central University of Venezuela professor and hydrometeorological engineer Juan Andrés Arévalo Groening, “there’s very little scientific information that something is really happening related to climate change” in Venezuela. But, he warns, “if the climate crisis is burning everywhere, nothing can’t be not happening in Venezuela.” Venezuela, for example, has lost almost all its glaciers, and there are studies that show changes in the Andean vegetation due to climate change.

In any case, says Arévalo, “we have no evidence that these precipitations are due to climate change.” In fact, he explains, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change forecasts drought and a decrease in the average rainfall in northern South America. According to Arévalo, the heavy rains in Venezuela are fundamentally associated with the La Niña phenomenon, the change in rainfall that occurs when the equatorial part of the Pacific Ocean cools down, which alters the climate throughout the planet. But due to the lack of evidence and studies in Venezuela, he says, it’s difficult to see what “proportion of the responsibility falls on one phenomenon and how much falls on another.”

Although the phenomenon of La Niña and its more famous inverse, El Niño, are customary, and there are still not enough studies on how climate change could affect their development, according to data from Copernicus, the EU’s Earth Observation Programme. Arévalo has seen that, since the early 2000s, Venezuela’s “temperature anomalies” (ie, deviation from the long-term average values) have tended to be above average even in La Niña years. That is: temperatures now tend to be higher.

In fact, he says that the increase in temperature of the Atlantic Ocean is already “an irrefutable fact.” This generates more humidity that reaches Venezuela through the trade winds, which could develop storm clouds. According to Arévalo, there are already studies that confirm that rains and hurricanes are developing much faster in the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico. La Niña also reduces the sudden changes in the direction of the wind that tend to prevent hurricanes. This overlapping of phenomena could generate more hurricanes in the Caribbean. But, the hydro meteorologist says, the real problem lies in “vulnerability”.

The Andes and Zulia Are Flooded

In June, more than 30,000 inhabitants of Mérida were affected. Just a year earlier, floods caused by landslides ravaged the same state: at least 20 lives were lost, 11 of them in Tovar alone.

Days before the Las Tejerías landslide, the Ranchers Association of Encontrados—south of Lake Maracaibo—reported that 168,000 hectares where meat and milk are produced (more than three times the area of ​​Greater Caracas) had been affected by the floods. This means a reduction in the productive capacity of the region where 75% of the meat, bananas and milk in Venezuela come from.

The vulnerability of the infrastructure has been key in these catastrophes. In April, the Catatumbo municipality began to flood when a dike on the Zulia River collapsed. Almost 30,000 hectares were affected. According to the local mayor, the national government had been informed about the fragility of the dam three months before the breach. The ranchers, seeing that their cattle were drowning, had to slaughter them. The national government barely allocated 300,000 dollars (about 10 dollars per hectare) to deal with the emergency.

The situation, as described by the ranchers of Encontrados, has worsened with the rains of recent months. “It’s snowing a lot in the Andes,” explains Arévalo, “That snow melts and produces these floods and overflows of streams that affect the southern coast of the lake and the inter-Andean valley.” 

For Antonio Di Lisio, a geographer specializing in planning and UCV professor, vulnerability to these floods often occurs because buildings are built “in the river’s dejection cones.” For example, Socopó, Barinas, or Los Patos stream in Las Tejerías “are places where the river can flood again at any time,” he explains. Although construction along rivers has been regulated in Venezuela since the 1930s, with increasingly greater mandatory distance from riverbeds, this “is not fulfilled.”

Di Lisio adds that the recent reopening of relations between Colombia and Venezuela focuses on trade but leaves aside the binational management of shared river basins, despite the fact that the Act of San Pedro Alejandrino, signed by presidents Carlos Andrés Pérez and Virgilio Barco in 1990, agreed to create mixed commissions to manage the international rivers that originate in one country and flow into the other, such as the Meta or the Arauca. “We will hardly be able to avoid floods and landslides if we don’t start working upstream with Colombia.”

The Specter of El Limón

For José María de Viana, civil engineer and director of hydraulic resources of the Ministry of the Environment between 1981 and 1983 and president of Hidrocapital during the 1990s, the massive mudslides that cause overflows—and which drag rocks, large trees, debris, and water—not only affect human settlements in riverbeds. The expert explains that the El Limón tragedy in 1987 —also in Aragua, which left between 100 and 300 dead people— particularly affected those who were driving their vehicles on the highway. “It resembles the effect of a volcano,” he says when describing the mudslides that spread over an area of ​​up to one hundred or two hundred kilometers, “in Vargas, there are (affected) houses that were very far from the river.” 

Shortly after the El Limón landslide, the government initiated an international consultation process. A commission from the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) came to Venezuela and used the experience of that country, which suffers more than a thousand landslides a year, to teach Venezuelan technicians to systematically analyze each event, learn how to prevent them and alert, and build adequate civil works. The Japanese, for example, set up an early warning system on the Limón River that consisted of putting wires on the upper part of the river. If the mud moved, the wires would break. They also suggested trimming the tops of tall trees in Henri Pittier National Park “so that the trees are not so heavy and destabilize the terrain,” explains De Viana, without removing the forest cover. After the landslide, “it seemed that a giant had scratched the park” in areas that were completely vegetated.

However, says De Viana, by 1999, the country had already returned to improvisation. “The people who were running Civil Defense and the Ministry of the Environment had no idea what was going on” in Vargas, he says. Since then, more lives have been lost during the rains, in the Mocotíes Valley, in Mérida, in 2005 and 2021, and now in Las Tejerías. For De Viana, there’s a measurement issue in Venezuela because many stations don’t work and “a large part of the measurement network has been eliminated.” The network of electric company Edelca, in the south of the country, seems to have been abandoned after the company joined Corpoelec in 2008. “We could have an electronic metering network in all critical accounts for a very small investment,” he says.

In 2019, the government announced that it would install 355 new hydrometeorological stations in Venezuela, and an expansion of the station network was announced in May 2022. But this year, in the midst of this downpour, the status of these alleged extensions is unknown.

The Gold Rush Brought Floods

In August, after eight hours of rain, the Uairén River overflowed its banks in Santa Elena de Uairén—a border town in Bolívar—affecting 4,000 families, which is 80% of the town’s population, exceeding the expectations of local authorities. “We’re seeing floods in areas where we’ve never seen them before,” says Alfredo Gil, a hydrometeorologist engineer specializing in hydrological studies and UCV professor, for example, in Santa Elena de Uairén, Guasipati and the road axis of Bolívar.

According to Gil, the problem isn’t the rains, because “it’s one of the places where the most rain falls in Venezuela.” The new floods are due to “human use problems” such as deforestation and environmental degradation. The mining exploitation, which increased abruptly in 2016, has devastated vast areas of vegetation that normally acts like a sponge with the rainwater. Without the vegetation layer, the waters drain faster and cause flooding.

But not all of the Orinoco reacted the same way to the rainy season. Although this year the water levels in the river have been high, in the last week the measurements in Puerto Ayacucho and Caicara have registered a drop in water of thirteen and twelve centimeters respectively. On the other hand, in Ciudad Bolívar, the decrease was only eight centimeters due to the rains in the nearby Caura, and in Paula only three centimeters less were registered, due to the water relief of the Gurí Reservoir. These four stations have been preserved due to the importance of navigation on the Orinoco, and are under the control of the Bolivarian Navy, the Ministry of Ecosocialism and the National Canalization Institute.

Despite recent declines, the river’s floods have been high since 2018, when they reached a record 18.18 meters above sea level and flooded Ciudad Bolívar and other cities and communities in the Orinoquia. “It could be climate change or variability,” says Gil, referring to the lack of information and studies. But he warns: “The country’s vulnerability is so great that four drops can be trouble”.

Caracas Is Also Vulnerable

In the capital, the data indicates that it is raining more than before. According to Arévalo, the average for the period 1991-2020 is greater than the average for 1961-1990. In fact, annual precipitation measurements are much higher than fifty years ago. In 2022, according to the UCV station, between April and September—except May and July—it has rained more than the Caracas monthly average: especially in August and September.

According to Arévalo, this phenomenon could be caused by urban heat islands generated by the expansion of the city: that is, the increase in temperature in a city due to traffic, construction materials and the lack of green areas. The aggressive increase in urban temperatures that generates thermal islands accelerates the evaporation of water and stimulates irregular rainfall: that is, events that exceed 20 millimeters of rain. On Thursday the 28th, explains Di Lisio, it rained more than 112 millimeters in El Hatillo: 10% of the area’s annual average. 

In addition, says De Viana, “in some neighborhoods there are destabilization processes formed by the houses themselves” that have sewage that isn’t properly channeled and infiltrates the land of the mountain. De Viana recalls tropical storm Brett, which impacted areas of the capital such as La Vega, El Valle, Coche and the upper part of Cota 905, leaving more than 70 dead in Caracas alone. For De Viana, the lesson of that night was the importance of having well-equipped fire and emergency services—with better vehicles, machinery and lighting—in metropolitan areas. In September, a boy from Chapellín was dragged down a ravine. His body was found days later in the Guaire River, already in the Valles del Tuy. For Di Lisio, Antímano and the areas near the Tacagua stream in Catia are also vulnerable.

But southeastern Caracas can also be vulnerable due to the type of soil where several buildings were built. In recent days, part of a farm—shared by 12 families—collapsed in Colinas de Bello Monte. There were landslides in residential areas of Colinas de La Tahona and a pregnant woman was walled up when her house collapsed in Baruta. Di Lisio also warns about the effect of poor trimming and deforestation in metropolitan municipalities. For example, the poorly trimmed jabillo that collapsed on Libertador Avenue: “There are no longer specialized trimming services in almost any municipality,” says Di Lisio, who notes the lack of “criteria” in the Chacao municipality.

Planning, Crucial for Development

It’s necessary for the State to enforce the ordinances and laws that govern hydro climatological risk, says Di Lisio. For example, the informal populations in the riverbeds, such as Las Tejerías, “should have simply been relocated a long time ago.” However, Di Lisio warns that a relocation process shouldn’t repeat the situation of the victims of Vargas: they spent years in inadequate shelters and then were moved to buildings of the Housing Mission which, he explains, don’t meet the standards of social coexistence or the architecture of a tropical country, copying Belarusian and Russian prototypes.

Instead, he believes that Venezuela should follow the United Nations Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction and inform communities of the risks in the areas where they live. Evaluating the return periods of climatic phenomena, to define the role of climate change, is another measure recommended by the geographer. “We have lost the orientation of the technical guidelines that should be present in a development plan,” he says. “So far, I haven’t seen a coherent, intelligent policy that allows us to learn from previous events.”

Tony Frangie Mawad

Tony (1997) is one of Caracas Chronicles' editors, where he writes since 2016. He graduated in Journalism and Political Science from Boston University in 2021. Since then, he has written at Bloomberg, The Economist, Politico and others.