Development & Aid, Environment, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

WATER-VENEZUELA: Rationing in a Land of Abundance

Humberto Márquez

CARACAS, Apr 2 2003 (IPS) - Although water rationing has been a fact of life in the Venezuelan capital and other large cities in this South American country due to a drought that has dragged on since 2001, the measures have recently become much stricter, due to the extremely low levels of water in the reservoirs.

”This is nothing new for us,” Hilda Hernández, 42, who works full-time as a cook in a restaurant in El Paraíso, a residential neighbourhood in Caracas, told IPS.

”I’ve been climbing these 54 stairs with a can of water every day for the past 10 years,” said Hernández, who lives with her four children in a shantytown, known as ”barrio 905”, located on a steep slope above El Paraíso.

Nothing new indeed. In 1958, when Colombian Nobel Literature Prize-winner Gabriel García Márquez was working as a journalist in Venezuela, he wrote a series of reports that were later published in one volume, titled ‘When I was Happy and Undocumented’.

The main character in one of the stories, ‘Caracas Without Water’, was a fictitious German tourist who described how his stay in the Venezuelan capital was affected by the drought.

The residents of the city’s formally established neighbourhoods – or half of the four million people living in Caracas – have been more fortunate than slumdwellers like Hernández, although they too have faced water shortages.

”We’ve been rationing their water one or two days a week for the past two years,” said Jacqueline Farías, president of the governmental water company Hidrocapital. ”Now we will double the rationing.”

Josué Castro, who described himself as ”a bricklayer tired of being unemployed,” began to sell plastic jerry cans for storing gasoline when a strike against President Hugo Chávez led to fuel shortages in December and January.

But now ”I reconverted my business, and I’m selling the same jerry cans for water,” he told IPS on a street in the fashionable neighbourhood of Santa Mónica.

The need for rationing is ironic in a country rich in oil – the biggest reserves in the hemisphere – as well as water.

Eighty-five percent of Venezuela’s population of 23 million lives in urban centres, and more than 80 percent of the population is concentrated in the north, along the shores of the Caribbean sea, and Lake Maracaibo in the country’s oil-producing region.

But the northern coastal provinces have just five percent of the country’s fresh water, which is piped in from reservoirs through costly and often antiquated water pipe systems.

The sparsely populated south, by contrast, has abundant water, provided by the large rivers that flow into the Orinoco.

Venezuela has enormous reserves of water, ranking 23rd in the world according to a United Nations index, which reports that this country has around 51,000 cubic metres of water a year per capita, six times less than neighbouring Guyana (316,000), but more than Brazil (48,000) and Colombia (50,000), with which it also shares borders.

The country has also experienced periods of intense rainfall. In December 1999, flooding and landslides killed thousands of people in Vargas, along the Caribbean coast near Caracas.

But since 2001 it has hardly rained at all in the area of the Camatagua dam, to the north of the country’s central plains, and the flow of water piped in to the capital from the reservoir was reduced from 17,000 litres per second to 12,000, then to 9,000, and the last cutback, this month, brought supplies down to just 7,400 litres per second.

Camatagua currently holds around 200 million cubic metres of water, compared to an average of 1.2 billion cubic metres last year.

”If the reservoir does not return to normal levels in the (May to October) rainy season, we will begin to draw on the ‘dead volume’ – the water that accumulates at the bottom – as of November, and the rationing measures will become much stricter,” said Farías.

Besides the lack of rainfall, rivers have also been affected by forest fires – which abound in the scorching summer, Venezuela’s dry season – that accelerate the process of evaporation, further lowering the water level in the rivers.

Even Avila mountain, a national park area that stands between Caracas and the sea, was hit by forest fires.

In addition, the Guri hydropower dam in southeastern Venezuela, which has the capacity to generate 10,000 megawatts of electricity, part of which is sold to Brazil, has been affected by the low level of water in the rivers. And just across the border, in the northern Brazilian state of Roraima, forest fires continue to rage out of control.

In his weekly radio and television programme ”Aló, presidente”, Chávez constantly urges Venezuelans to leave the northern coastal region and move to the hot but well-irrigated plains in the central and southern provinces.

More contradictions in this oil-rich nation: 56 percent of all households fall below the poverty line, and half of the economically active population works in the informal sector, while 18 percent of the population is unemployed.

Venezuela ”is the most urbanised country and most open and exposed to the market in Latin America,” Ricardo Villasmil, with the Institute of Social and Economic Research at the Andrés Bello Catholic University, told IPS.

At the third World Water Forum held Mar. 16-23 in the Japanese city of Kyoto, the connection between poverty and lack of clean water, which is blamed for 2.2 million deaths a year in the developing world, was once again highlighted.

An estimated 1.2 billion people worldwide lack access to clean water, while 2.4 billion have no sewage services.

The World Summit on Sustainable Development that took place last year in Johannesburg, South Africa set a target of cutting the number of people in the world without access to clean water and sanitation in half by 2015.

But unless specific water-development programmes requiring more than 40 billion dollars in annual investment are undertaken, 2.7 billion people – one-third of the global population – will suffer from a lack of clean water by 2025, according to the Kyoto forum.

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