Climate Change Joins Venezuela’s Political Fuss

While the government blames wildfires on the opposition and blackouts on climate change, experts doubt that nature is behind the increase in water and electric cuts

In March, Venezuela’s state-owned electric company Corpoelec posted a video of Freddy Bernal –the Chavista governor of Táchira– at a dried reservoir in the Uribante-Caparo dam. Bernal explicitly defended Nicolás Maduro and himself before blaming climate change for evaporating the reservoir’s waters and generating blackouts in Táchira, Mérida, Trujillo and parts of Barinas, some of the states that have endured the hardest episodes of Venezuela’s electric crisis.

The governor’s statements came at a moment when Venezuela, as a result of El Niño –an almost-cyclical global climate phenomenon that generates strong droughts in the country– and climate change, is experiencing higher temperatures and drought. In the westernmost state of Zulia, the thermal sensation has reached 50 Celsius, while Venezuela’s National Institute of Meteorology and Hydrology (INAMEH) has declared most of the country to be at “very high” risk of fires. In fact, lack of serious policies has also resulted in NASA’s MODIS sensor reporting 9,000 fire counts between January and February – the highest number registered since NASA began its monitoring in the early 2000s. In March, MODIS registered 11,000 fires: the second-highest record in March since 2003.

Meanwhile, blackouts and water scarcity are on the rise. According to a survey by the Venezuelan Observatory of Public Services (OVSP), 54% of Venezuelans who used to experience weekly blackouts are now experiencing daily ones. These blackouts can last from two to six hours for 69% of surveyed people, while another 9% reported power outages lasting from six to nine hours. Throughout the country, blackouts are lasting longer than the programmed “electric rationing”. In Valencia, some areas spend from 24 to 72 hours without electricity. In Mérida and Zulia, and especially in the La Guajira region, blackouts can last for hours and days. Even in Caracas, 60,4% of those surveyed by the OVSP have a negative perception of the water service.

But experts are not so keen on blaming climate change for the country’s services crises. “Urban water and electricity supply problems have very little to do with reservoir levels,” says civil engineer José María de Viana, director of hydraulic resources of the Ministry of the Environment in the early 1980s, president of Hidrocapital during the 1990s and a leading expert on public services. “Venezuela is a country with reservoirs full of water and thirsty cities.”

According to De Viana’s research, the infrastructure that distributes water from reservoirs to cities is “weakened”, and 87% of thermoelectric systems –those powered by fuel and gas– in the hydroelectric dams are out of service. Besides, he says, high temperatures are not necessarily related to drought.

Antonio Di Lisio, a geographer specialized in planning and a professor at Universidad Central de Venezuela, believes that massive corruption that affected the electrical system and the lack of maintenance of electric transmission lines and the hydroelectric dams have more weight than climate change. Guri, in Guayana, provides more than half the electricity running through the national power network, and has been underperforming for years, with or without climate events like El Niño o La Niña. “I’m not sure about the Guri Dam’s current electricity generation capacity”, he says, “but before the pandemic it only generated 45% of its capacity”. Besides, he says, the sediments from unregulated mining in the Caroní basin could reduce the Guri’s useful life.

This wouldn’t be the first time Venezuelan authorities blame disasters resulting from mismanagement or lack of planning on climate change. Meanwhile, the Maduro government has weaponized the fires as a political tool. Maduro –facing a revitalized opposition before the July presidential elections– is blaming the forest fires on “a sort of silent and invisible guarimba” by “fascists”, a moniker Chavismo is reviving recently to use against the opposition.  

Nevertheless, high temperatures could actually fuel the already-massive discontent. According to a study by two Princeton researchers, higher temperatures can provoke “substate violence” globally even in areas where it doesn’t disrupt agricultural production. Another study by an environmentalist social scientist supports “previous research indicating that urban unrest increases during hot weather” and found that unrest in Asian and African cities “is most common and occurs with greater frequency and more violence during relatively warmer months.” While these incidents are triggered by local political, economic, and cultural issues, “warm weather exacerbates interactions between combatants” – something that can be universal. In other words, El Niño is going hasta el final.  

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.