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VENEZUELA: El Niño Dries Up Water, Power, Food Supply

Humberto Márquez

CARACAS, Oct 23 2009 (IPS) - The guanábana (soursop) trees in Victoria Martínez’s small orchard have yielded none of their delicious fruit this year, which she blames on the scarcity of water, a problem as annoying as the power blackouts at her house close to Tocuyito, a sun-baked town 120 kilometres southwest of the Venezuelan capital.

Food production is down, and drinking water and electricity are being rationed in this oil-rich country which prides itself on being a global energy power. Drought, caused by the reappearance of the cyclical El Niño climate phenomenon, is largely to blame. “In areas where the public services break down we have a harder time with the climate, which seems to have gone kind of crazy,” the 64-year-old Martínez told IPS as she poured some water on her plants “to save at least the bougainvillea by the house, that are so colourful and cheerful.”

Further south, in the central plains where much of Venezuela’s food is produced – although two-thirds of what Venezuelans eat is imported – the problems Martínez is experiencing at her home are reflected in a massive fall in cereal yields.

“The drought has hit between 70 and 80 percent of the maize, rice and sorghum crops in (the north-central state of) Guárico. Sixty thousand hectares of maize are a total loss and another 60,000 hectares are severely affected,” said the head of the Guárico Association of Cereal Growers, Vicente Figuera.

In most of Venezuela, the rainy season is from April or May to October or November, and the rest of the year is the dry season, but this year the dry season was longer and the rains scantier.

The government’s goal of producing 22 million tonnes of food this year is receding in the light of lower predicted cereal yields. While it was hoped the white maize harvest would reach 1.5 million tonnes, producers now forecast a total yield of one million tonnes, less than last year’s harvest.

Only 700,000 tonnes of yellow maize, a basic animal feedstuff, is expected this harvest, half a million tonnes less than last year. Another agribusiness leader, Antonio Pestana, said the rice harvest would yield between 3,500 and 4,000 kg per hectare, while last year the average for the country was 4,500 kg per hectare.

“Low yields are also being seen in crops like coffee, in the Andean highlands of Venezuela, Colombia and other countries in the region, because the coffee trees are flowering early and the developmental stages of the beans have been modified because of the drought,” Eulogio Chacón, head of the Institute of Environmental and Ecological Sciences at the University of the Andes, in southwestern Venezuela, told IPS.

“Dropping their leaves and flowering is a response mechanism of plants to lack of water. In Venezuela, trees in our forests like the coral tree (Erythina poeppigiana), which usually flowers in April, this year can be found still flowering in October,” Chacón said.

No doubt that is why the red and violet bougainvillea at Martínez’s house are flowering in such a dazzling display of beauty.

The drought in Venezuela originated in the Pacific ocean, “as a result of the most influential climate variation on earth, the El Niño phenomenon,” Venezuelan geographer Rigoberto Andressen told IPS.

Andressen is a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a group of experts who won the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize along with former U.S. vice president Al Gore (1993-2001).

El Niño, as Andressen said, is characterised by unusual warming of the waters of the central and eastern equatorial Pacific, which disturbs the atmosphere over the ocean so that warm air masses are displaced eastward toward South America, and warm the cold Humboldt current along the west of the continent.

“Changes in the circulation of air in the atmosphere cause prolonged drought in some areas and unexpected torrential rains in others,” said Andressen, pointing out that while nearly all the northern and central parts of South America are suffering from drought, in southeastern parts of the continent the rains have been heavier than normal.

The El Niño/Southern Oscillation (ENSO) last occurred in 2006, and the present El Niño could last into the first quarter of 2010. The increased frequency of ENSO cycles in recent years may be related to global climate change, which is heating up water in the Pacific ocean.

The most destructive ENSO event in recent decades occurred in 1997-1998, bringing rains and flooding to different parts of the world which resulted in the deaths of more than 24,000 people and material damages of at least 30 billion dollars, according to a study by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

In Colombia, after a La Niña event – the cold phase of ENSO – in 2007-2008, which left 120,000 people homeless from downpours and flooding, this year’s El Niño has reduced the flow of rivers, caused a heat wave and created ideal conditions for brush fires.

Chacón said the fires in Colombia have spread even into the highlands, which in that area are covered with grasslands that become tinder-dry in the drought, in contrast with Venezuela’s highlands where there are more shrubs.

Another factor that affects food production is that in pasturelands, small farmers and cattle raisers still burn off dry grasses to encourage the pasture to sprout afresh, with harmful effects in terms of soil erosion, Chacón said.

In Andressen’s view, there are problems ahead for Venezuela because of the low levels of its rivers, including the majestic Caroní river in the southeast. Several power stations in the lower valley of the Caroní have a combined generating capacity of 12,500 megawatt-hours.

“ENSO can also be used as a mechanism for forecasting weather, although this would require good meteorological services, in order to plan the building of dams and reservoirs to prevent flood damage and conserve water for times of drought,” Andressen said. The immediate effects of the drought in Venezuela include water rationing in Caracas and other cities, and electricity outages all over the country, which the state power generation and distribution companies have promised to spread evenly between residential and industrial areas.

The blackouts have caused street protests, mainly by small groups of residents all over the country, and consumer associations are being formed to debate the issue with the authorities.

The El Niño-related drought has exacerbated the problems of energy supply in this country, which has a total demand of 17,300 megawatt-hours that is growing at an annual rate of between six and seven percent and which should be met by a capacity of 24,000 megawatt-hours in good running order, to cope with breakdowns or emergencies, according to José Aller, a professor at the Simón Bolívar University in Caracas.

But Venezuela’s electricity generating capacity is only 16,400 megawatt-hours, and the power distribution network is poorly maintained.

Some wards in the main Caracas maternity hospital have been left without electricity for a whole day; farmers like Pestana complain of blackouts at silos which cause delays in storing harvested maize; and sales outlets are experiencing a surge in demand for generators of all sizes, from the smallest, costing 3,000 dollars, to the largest, with pricetags of over two million dollars.

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