CHE depthCHE scaleCivil SocietyLife conditionsWater and sanitationWrite-up

REPORT 3 | Venezuelan households count to the last drop of water

HumVenezuela, May 2021. | Foto: Archive

In one of the 15 countries in the world with the largest water reserves, four out of 100 citizens have to travel a kilometer or more to obtain water, because the system collapsed in the last 20 years and today it works only with 40% of its capacity.

In Venezuela, only 25% of people receive continuous water through the pipes at home, and nine out of 100 never does. There is hardly a breath of rust, a throaty, harsh sound, like thirst itself. And, when in any territory, be it urban or rural, from time to time water comes out of the tube, it is generally contaminated. Water that is not to drink.

Paradoxically, around a thousand rivers and freshwater waterfalls feed the 1,320 cubic kilometers of freshwater reserves in a country blessed by nature. With those riches that other countries would envy, Venezuela built the best aqueducts in the entire region. A robust, solid system. Its reservoirs and dams are the technological expression of how, since the middle of the 20th century, the country has been concerned with giving use to these torrents for irrigation, for industry, to mass domestic consumption and for the production of electricity – which in the 21st century is as deteriorated as the water system.

Esa tradición en Venezuela —según José María De Viana, ingeniero civil expresidente de Hidrocapital— se rompió porque en las empresas hidrológicas ya no prevalecen los criterios técnicos. “Probablemente hay buena voluntad, pero muy poco talento. En algún momento, después de despedir al personal, comenzaron a nombrar oficiales del ejército o de la aviación, que no dominaban la materia, en cargos gerenciales”. 

For De Viana the fundamental practices of maintenance or to repair these infrastructures were abandoned. And this physical, mechanical and electrical deterioration of the pipeline transport systems has led to a situation of lack of water throughout the country. “Even in San Félix or Ciudad Guayana, which, being surrounded by water, have no service.”

Venezuela lost 60% of its capacity

The water systems that in Venezuela had the capacity to produce and distribute 250 liters per person per day until 2000, and supply water to 87% of the population, today only offer 40% of the capacity they had 25 years ago. “In other words, instead of distributing about 140 thousand liters per second, about 55 thousand are distributed.” This is how the former vice president of Hidrocapital operations, engineer Norberto Bausson, explains the gap suffered in the water access by the Venezuelan population until January 2021. “I am a survey reviewer and I can say that, after a survey in 12 states and doing the corresponding extrapolations, we have been able to know that almost 90% of the population does not receive continuous water or that the water it receives is not good. It means that almost no one in this country has potable and continues water in their taps, ”he explains.

From the reservoirs to the connection in the houses, all the facilities have had the same luck, according to the studies to which Bausson has had direct access. “Just as now consumption is not measured in the house meter, neither is quality tracking done in the networks, as is expressed in the Gazette and in the National Constitution. The pumping stations have gone to the ground, there are no reserve equipment, that’s why they stop all the time. The investments that were foreseen have not been made, nor the replacement and rehabilitation of the systems, that is why it poorly works”.

The reservoirs have suffered the same fate. All basin care programs, reservoir decontamination, correction of all elements of the reservoir, such as intake towers, bottom discharges, ecological valves, were left behind and forgotten. “We had systems that were operating safely and continuously, and they were delivering potable water with plants working properly, and today this is not the case. There are barely 40% of the systems working, and practically none of the treatment plants produce drinking water, since they do not have the chemicals or the complete processes”, explains Bausson.

The winding road to the water 

More than 30 million meters of clear water pipeline and the same extension in sewage, large pumping stations, wells, treatment plants and control systems were 60% lost due to it was not properly rehabilitated, according to José María de Viana .

According to a CEDICE Public Services Monitoring report, during the second half of July 2020, 468 breakdowns were reported throughout the country, ranging from pipe breaks to distribution failures due to electrical inconveniences. The repair crews assured that they do not have the minimum inputs to work.

Access to water in Venezuela today is almost a utopia. In Los Palos Grandes, a middle-class sector of the Chacao municipality, in Caracas, the condominiums have begun to privately solve this issue by building wells that on average cost between 18 and 25 thousand dollars, because many buildings do not reach the end of the week with the water stored in their tanks, not even if they ration it. The mayor’s office has also begun to build wells to mitigate this collective penalty. In that area about 10,000 liters bought from a tanker cost between 60 and 80 dollars.

“The San Isidro sector in Petare is suffering after more than 60 days without water service”, headlined a news published by El Nacional with figures from the Venezuelan Observatory of Public Services OVSP, in March 2021. The conditions in which most of the Venezuelan population must deal with the lack of water are heartless. From storing all that they can because they do not know how or when it will arrive at their homes, to having to travel up to more than a kilometer to stock up or take it from some dirty ravine. 

One day of a woman from the Francisco Eugenio Bustamante parish, west of Maracaibo, is summed up in the routine of getting up at four in the morning to prepare breakfast for the children with the little water left from the previous day, taking them to the school and look for water again, prepare lunch and return to the square or the next neighborhood in search of water to wash the dishes and “boil it beyond normal standards” even to have a bath. And even bottled water is not reliable, “because children get sick.”

Although there is a “aguada” of Hidrolago near the neighborhood exclusively assigned to tanker trucks destined for hospitals and schools, in January 2019 the neighbors organized a demonstration because they were told that the pumps were damaged, but stealthily, in the dark of the night Trucks from private networks lined up to fill their tanks while the neighbors had not received a drop in their pipes for between six months and two years (TV Venezuela).

In a square next to the place where the banana trucks are parked, there is a small water outlet in the street, in front of which there are very long lines of people who transport the water in pipes to their houses, sometimes by wheelbarrow and others by weight on their shoulders. Only those who have US dollars or Colombian pesos have access to the black market for water, according to the protesters.

In the October-November 2020 report, the OVSP included questions about how citizens solved the supply in their homes. 45% of those surveyed said they store it; another 20.6% buy it from a tanker truck; 10.6% are supplied with bottles, and 9.9% bring it from other places and prefer wells and streams, or go to the house of a neighbor, friend or relative.

The first OVSP survey in 2021 showed that 8.4% of Venezuelans never receive water through pipes; 65.9% suffer from rationing and the other 25% of those consulted – the minority – said they always receive it. Among the nearly 66% of those who sometimes receive water, 21% have access twice a month or less. The rest oscillate between once or several times a day, once a day (9%), and five, four, three, two and once a week (29%).

With a dry throat

Punto Fijo, Maracaibo and Porlamar are the cities whose taps are the driest. According to the surveys, these states reach only 1%, 2.5% and 6% of continuous water respectively. 

The State built the Bolivarian Aqueduct, or “Coloso de Falcon”, which consists of 180 kilometers of pipeline and is the second largest built in these first 20 years of the 21st century, with a flow of 2,500 liters per second. But it collapsed, and the 600,000 inhabitants who were going to get tap water have to queue from the early morning in front of the cisterns. Another white elephant in Venezuelan history, this time built with a Chinese company.

Although in 2021 there was an increase from 18.6% to 25% in users who receive drinking water continuously compared to the data for November 2020, the assessment of the quality of the service is 61% negative: in Punto Fijo with 83.6%, Porlamar with 82.6% and Maracaibo with 82.4%, was where the populations evaluated the service the worst.

San Cristóbal is the city with the most access to continuous water according to what 64.8% of its inhabitants say, followed by Mérida with 63.1% and Barinas with 34.5%. However, in 2019 Professor Armando Guernica, from San Antonio del Tachira, located less than an hour from San Cristóbal, told Transparencia Venezuela that water and electricity were almost non-existent. The tanker trucks were supplied from a contaminated well. One thousand liters cost 12.000 Colombian pesos and three thousand liters from 25 to 30 thousand.

In April 2020, El Pitazo correspondents collected information throughout the country, according to which 17 of the 335 municipalities had a constant water supply. Only 136 municipalities received piped water at least once a week, even for a few hours. 71 spent more than a month without the service and several sectors of 18 municipalities had a year or more without receiving a drop. 

In at least 172 municipalities they resorted to improvised intakes from wells, rivers, or underground deposits, such as cisterns or springs, and broken pipes on public roads, to be able to supply themselves. The 93 remaining municipalities had water every 15 days or received it only once a month when variables such as electricity, the level of reservoirs or wells, and the diversion of supply did not influence the schedules – parallel to those reported by the regional hydrology – that have been established in many communities. 

El Pitazo confirmed that in at least 160 of the 335 municipalities they accessed water through cisterns in which they spent between 300,000 bolivars and more than 60 US dollars, which were equivalent to more than 11 minimum wages calculated at the official rate. There is not a single state of the 23 in all of Venezuela that has regular water service in all its municipalities, concludes El Pitazo.

The greatest expression of misery 

For reasons of access, scale and quality, services, including water supply, are the responsibility of the State. Reducing poverty through accessible, continuous and safe public services is a very powerful strategy, because coverage is massive and goes faster than the economy. This is how De Viana explains it. “Water is essential for our body, our clothes, our house. If we live in a very nice house, but without services, we are in misery. A country without drinking water is not a healthy country ”. 

In 2015, heads of state, formally meeting at the United Nations, adopted the 2030 Agenda composed of 17 goals, among which clean water and sanitation are ranked 6, wrote Norberto Bausson for the IESA. 

The first sign of poverty reduction according to international standards, specifically from the World Health Organization, is a good water system. But in Venezuela, according to OVSP data cited by Chronicle One, 64% of Venezuelans consider that the lack of water makes it difficult to maintain hygiene routines, which becomes more worrying in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. And only 25 out of 100 people receive continuous water through the pipes at home. The rest suffer from rationing.

This situation, says De Viana, “makes us one of the poorest countries in terms of public services. Almost half of the hospitals do not have water, and this situation came, paradoxically, after a great fiscal wealth managed with very little technical criteria and little administrative integrity, which made those resources useless ”.

This would explain why a country with so many resources has reached a situation of Complex Humanitarian Emergency.

It is not free that the 2020 report of the Venezuelan Observatory of Social Conflict warns that Venezuelans are forced to comply with a lockdown to mitigate the spread and effects of COVID-19 and do not have the minimum conditions in terms of basic services. The health system is in decline and to this are added, precisely, the difficulties to enjoy access to drinking water. Proof of this is that in the middle of the pandemic there were 1,883 protests over water in the country. It is not surprising then that, according to a network scrutiny carried out by the CEDICE Public Services Monitor in February 2021, 711,947 times the hashtags #SinAgua (Without Water) and #SinAguaVE (Without Water in Venezuela) were used on Twitter.