CHE depthCivil SocietyPublic servicesWater and sanitationWater qualityWrite-up

REPORT 4 | Murky is the water consumed in Venezuela

HumVenezuela, April 2021.

Although the management of the Venezuelan State is unfathomable, monitoring organizations of public services in Venezuela have managed to explain how difficult it is to drink water with good quality. The collapsed systems and the public perception allow us to infer that, according to international standards, the lack of potable water makes Venezuela one of the countries with the greatest setbacks in the commitments to guarantee water quality. Only in Caracas, 92% of citizens consume high-risk water.

Aurelia can no longer bear the thought of spending the rest of her life “bringing cans of dirty water upstairs.” Reusing the water with which she washes the dishes to empty the sinks for several days is not healthy at all, nor hopeful. She have lost count of the days that have passed without bathing and have seen a thick layer floating on the surface of the saucepan even after it has passed through 100 degrees of boiling for 15 minutes, although the gas also does not know when it will arrive and boil the water it is a luxury that many cannot afford. Washing her hair is almost science fiction. 

San Blas, located in Petare, Caracas, has not received water for more than seven years.

Lomas de la Trinidad, an impoverished middle-class area, after 927 days without service, in August 2020 it received 20 hours of water according to Monitor Ciudad, a seed that germinated at the community level and has been feeding a neighborhood network for the defense of the right to water with valuable information that they share to overcome official opacity, among which is a georeferenced data collection system that is updated in real time with the reports of the communities.

Hand in hand with experts, community activists, social communicators and civil society organizations, the practice of monitoring the levels of access and quality of home water has spread throughout the country, which implies knowing where it reaches, how often, by which means it is obtained and under which conditions it is received. Most are based on perception surveys that apply not only to water but also to gas, gasoline, transportation, and electricity.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), water must be free of microorganisms, chemical substances and radiological hazards that threaten human health, and its color, odor and taste are indicators of quality. However, the perception of the people of Caracas between March and September 2020, is that in six months the quality of the water deteriorated significantly. According to the Citizenship are Limits report (City Monitor), in March 54.9% perceived the water quality as bad and six months later it increased to 79.25%.

Diseased systems

The experts consulted by HumVenezuela agree that the water in Venezuela cannot reach the houses clean because the reservoirs are not maintained, which would prevent its sedimentation and the undergrowth. On the other hand, the hydrological companies are bankrupt and cannot buy even 10% of the chemicals required by the purification plants – inputs that, furthermore, are no longer produced in the basic companies because they are also bankrupt – and because the pipes are so damaged that it is impossible to guarantee that the little water that circulates discontinuously will not be contaminated. 

In the World Health Organization guidelines is considered that water is not drinkable in a place where the service is not continuous and the systems leak through cracks, through which contaminants pass that accumulate over time, explains Jesús Vásquez, civil engineer with long experience in community organization and development of sanitary engineering projects, member of the Monitor Ciudad team.

An investigation by Monitor Ciudad with laboratory tests applied in strategic points of the Tuy distribution system that supplies Caracas, has verified that the water consumed by citizens is a risk to their health. Until April 21, 2021, the collected samples showed a percentage of quality failures, which ranged between 10% and 15%, explains Jesús Vásquez: “And although 54 tests is not a large enough sample to be conclusive, when you go to the surveys that we have done and you see that 92% of the city has an intermittent service, by definition these people do not have a drinking water service. And the remaining 8% have no guarantee that its purification is feasible, it has variable purification ”. 

How much does it cost to receive clean water.

larifying and making water drinkable is simple, but in 21st century Venezuela, it is a chimera. All you need is aluminum sulfate or iron sulfate to remove impurities, and once clarified, it is purified with chlorine. Of course, that happens in a healthy water system. But everything seems to indicate, according to experts, that both the hydrological companies that must buy these inputs, as well as the basic companies that produce them are bankrupt. In other words, neither chemicals are being produced, nor can hydrological companies buy them.

Engineer Vásquez indicates the blind spot in this complex situation. “Pequiven is not producing chlorine and Ferralca, which was the iron sulfate supplier company, closed together with Bauxiven (which provided the raw material) and other bankrupt basic companies, such as Venalum, Sidor, Sidetur. You may also inquire – he says – which is the dosage of chemicals in the water and if they are really helping the treatment plant, but the plants are not only a black box where you cannot enter without permission from the military, but also no information is released and based on an investigation we just did, they are doing poorly. You can just take a satellite photo and you see the amount of foam that is in the settlers”. 

In the water monitoring carried out by Monitor Ciudad between June and September 2020, the analysis of the collected samples, specifically in the Tuy II system, showed color problems, attributable to iron values higher than those established in the quality standards of drinking water. In the case of the Tuy III system it becomes more complicated because the pipes are very deteriorated and many times you go and there is no water to take the sample”.

The CEDICE Public Expenditure Observatory indicates that in February 2021 the government invested approximately USD 1,340,000 in water systems, only two of the 10 planned works were completed and only 25% of the damage in the water systems pipelines had been repaired. For the rest, it is known that the distribution plants are working with a 45% capacity and at least 230 white water boats are reported in the country on that same date.

The economist Raúl Córdoba, from the CEDICE Public Expenditure Observatory and the Public Services Observatory, observes that “the capture of economic and financial resources in Venezuela is not tied to the performance of the service. In many cases, a large amount of money is spent and very little is invested. It is spent on repairs, which are not in substance but in form, without solving the structural problem. There are countries that with the same or less amount of money do much more and that shows the gap in the management of these financial resources”.

The cost of water should not exceed 3% of household income, according to international human rights standards. Caracas has come to have the most expensive water in the world. A 10 thousand-liter cistern of water, of dubious origin, can cost up to USD 200 at times of greatest scarcity, without adding the cost of the user to purify it; and the minimum salary is USD 1.52 per month.

Other data from the CEDICE Public Services Observatory indicates that only 1% of the population receives continuous water. This information results from a survey applied to 1,060 people from all the states of the country, compared with secondary data obtained from social networks, complaints, alerts and notifications from the public and private sectors, and from people linked to civil associations and other institutions. If most of the water pollution in Venezuela occurs in pipes damaged by pressure changes, then only that 1% or so has clean water. 

The Venezuelan pipeline system — says Córdoba — requires weekly maintenance to control the pressure that changes when “they are turned off and on. So water runs, air runs, and this variation of elements produces pollution. Generally, it is for this reason that after a while of rationing the tap is opened and it comes out with color, smell, and if we are more daring and try it, we see that it has a taste of soil, oxides, metals and organic substances. The water must have controlled percentages of chemical products and, in Venezuela, our water treatment plants do not work as it should because it does not have the operating model fully implemented. It is, in the end, the pressurization of the pipes that determines whether, in effect, we receive potable or semi-potable water, which is already an indicator that we do not receive potable water”.

Aged reservoirs

In the January 2021 report of the Public Expenditure Observatory, it is said that in the 2006-2020 period no new reservoirs were built, that at least 35% of them are contaminated and the rest do not have the minimum conditions to maintain a service without interruptions.

The waters of natural lakes tend to have a life span of thousands of years, but reservoirs, which are man-made lakes, age prematurely around the age of sixty, says Ernesto González, an ecologist and field virologist. Reservoirs or their sources collect pollutants along the way, receive excess untreated sewage, fertilizers and other agents, and this accelerates the aging processes, known as eutrophication. It is a process through which nitrogenous and phosphorous nutrients stimulate the growth of plant plankton and aquatic plants can reproduce at great speeds. 

Hybrids of rivers and lakes, reservoirs have a water outlet so that the level is maintained up to a certain point. This gives it a certain dynamic that helps to rejuvenate the waters, but after 60 years of life the sediments that have been dragged by the tributaries steal depth. The surrounding vegetation is gaining ground and the reservoirs lose their useful life. This is how González —who is also a member of the Academy of Natural Sciences and representative of Venezuela before the Inter-American Network of Academies of Sciences— explains the situation, for example, of the Mariposa.

“The La Mariposa reservoir – Capital District – was built in 1949 and in the 1980s it was 20 meters deep in its central area. The last time I saw it with my students it was seven meters in the center, and now it is almost dry. That has been filled with sediment, sand, and the bora has reproduced. This is a reservoir with a very high urban activity”, says González. “Matícora, in Falcón state, has sedimentation problems. It is an area whose rivers carry an immense amount of sediment and siltation occurs. There are even technical reports that revealed that it was not convenient to build that reservoir there ”.

Known as the Camatagua Reservoir, the Ernesto León David Reservoir, according to information from González, “brings water from the Tucutunemo River, which has inadequate treatment, because its main tributary, the Guárico River, had a low flow and at some point the waters of the Tucutunemo were diverted to maintain the water level of the reservoir. This accelerated the eutrophication process and now it has a high biological productivity, which can accelerate the production of phytoplankton, with a high risk of containing toxins of high proportions “At that time, are the sanitary engineers who have to act on the cyanobacteria”. 

“In Caracas,” he says, “we have three large reservoirs that were built for those great droughts or cases of rationing, which are La Mariposa, La Pereza and Macarao, which are at higher levels and can descend to the city by gravity. La Mariposa and Macarao are dry. The only one who has water is La Pereza”.

Regarding the purification process, the engineer José María de Viana, former president of Hidrocapital, says that “the sewage treatment plants are out of operation, most of them were vandalized”, and that “prolonged divestment coupled with looting of the warehouses has also created a situation of lack of trucks, equipment, spare parts and work tools, for which at the moment the workers rest in their work centers without the possibility of even going to the breakdown sites”.

The regions “make water”

An engineer with vast experience working in the Central Regional System, Jesús Castillo warns that there are serious governance problems in water matters in this region. In Cojedes, where the two reservoirs (Pao Las Balsas and Pao Cachinche) that supply Aragua and Carabobo are located, there is only continuous water through pipes in the central part of Pao and barely between 40 and 50 liters per second is received from the plant, which is very little. The municipalities of San Carlos, Tinaquillo and Tinaco receive the water that comes from the Tirgua River. This situation has been aggravated during the pandemic due to the decrease of personnel.

On average, Castillo says, people in the central region pass 21 days without receiving water. In that period they must procure it in any way, even breaking the quarantine to go looking for it. In this new task, seven out of 10 are women, and of those seven, three are adolescents. Of those same 10 people, six are older adults who have to carry between 10 and 20 kilos three times a day. As corroborated by the Venezuelan Observatory of Social Conflict, most of the demonstrations for water in Venezuela are led by women.

For Jesús Castillo, the worst part is borne by women, who have to deal with the house, with children who cannot go to school because they do not have water and also have to go out to look for it. “Sometimes you see them pass by with the jerrycan in a stroller,” he says.

The majority spend between one and six hours a day and sometimes walk up to 15 blocks in search of water, Castillo says. “People look run down, exhausted, and water was added to the list of pressing needs.” The refill of a bottle costs a dollar, and for a thousand liters of a cistern you pay 10 dollars. But it all depends a lot on whether you live in a rural area or in an urban area. Almost 40% of the household budget goes to water in a rural area of Aragua state. According to the figures provided by the OVCS, in 2020 the participation of people from rural areas in protests over basic services, including drinking water, increased. “Demands that have become urgent in the face of COVID-19”, he indicates.

In certain communities like Samán Tarazonero, when the water comes through the pipes it smells bad and sometimes is cloudy. “After waiting eight days – in this case – it’s as if you don’t have water, because in those conditions it doesn’t work for you. That is why people go out to find safer landfills ”, Castillo warns. “There is an illogical segmentation of the drinking water service. They only serve urban areas because there is a governance vacuum left by the Autonomous Rural Housing Institute, which managed the water service in the countryside”.

Although the jungle should be a place where you can enjoy pure nature, the waters of the Amazon and Delta Amacuro states are far from being the cleanest. Most of those surveyed by the CEDICE Public Services Observatory agreed that the water service in these states is received without inconvenience or natural sources are used, according to what the expert and environmental activist of the Aguaclara Foundation said, María Eugenia Gil Beroes, waters actually have an accumulated history of chemical contamination that cannot be seen with the naked eye. This also includes the Bolívar state.

“Before mining, basic industries had their artificial lagoons built to dump the chemical substances used and those residues that remain there, when the river rises, overflows and distributes those toxins in its path. All this flow carries the contamination downstream until it reaches the Atlantic, and the inhabitants, along the Orinoco basin, are at high risk of drinking water not suitable for human consumption and eating fishes with high mercury content.

A resolution of April 8, 2020, published in Gazette 6,526, declared the Aro, Caroní, Caura, Cuchivero, Cuyuní and Yuruari rivers of the Bolívar state suitable for mining exploitation, and incorporated them into the Orinoco Mining Arc project, area that represents 12% of the territory. The provision puts at risk the life of all the ecosystems of the Amazon region and the ethnic groups that depends on those ecosystems.

The CEDICE Public Expenditure Observatory offers data that reveal the situation of the service and the quality of water in some states:

The physical and chemical treatment systems in Paraguaná, Falcón state, presented failures. USD 67,000 was approved for the partial replacement of the system with a more modern one. The work began in February, but was halted in March and the reason is unknown.

Due to an electrical failure in Zulia, a water distribution system that supplied several municipalities broke down. Economic resources were approved to carry out its replacement, the amount is unknown, but it is known that the works were paralyzed.

In Sucre-Nueva Esparta, the government approved USD 312,258 for the reconditioning of the storage and distribution plant. The Luisa Cáceres de Arismendi aqueduct had a failure after a power failure and a partial failure in the pumping system. By March 40% of the fault had been repaired, but the works were also paralyzed.

More than 150 hours without water supply suffered in March by citizens in three of the nine municipalities of the state of Zulia. It was learned that the fault originated due to illegal connections in secondary pipes or matrices. At least 4 kilometers of pipeline was completely broken and required replacement. USD 37,580 was approved and 85% of the fault was repaired.

After a breakdown in the Metropolitan Distributor, in the Capital District the Executive Power approved additional resources for the repair and replacement of components of one of the Tuy pumping systems for USD 97,000. The tender included the participation of four communally-owned companies that ranged from import to the adaptation, installation and maintenance of the systems. The project ended 22 days late and the failure was not fully resolved.

In the state of Miranda, USD 120,000 of the Government’s funds were approved for the execution of a repair in the distribution pipes in El Tambor (Los Teques). The project includes the replacement of the damaged branch pipes with plastic pipes and bleed valves of different gauges. The restrictions imposed by the pandemic paralyzed activities and the system remains broken.

It is complex to satisfy the demands of access and quality of human rights and international standards with a water system that accumulates this level of deterioration. Looking at it in context, it would be prudent to consider that in general terms the causes of the Complex Humanitarian Emergency continue to conspire against, above all, a vulnerable population that grows and impoverishes as the crisis deepens.

The disinvestment of the State and its unsuccessful management of public services, which includes among its causes the lack of trained personnel; the persistence of a fragile, unreliable and hyperinflationary economic system; “free” services that does not guarantee the money necessary for the systems to work and only increases the gaps between those who can pay for the construction of wells and/or the purchase of water from tanker trucks, which are priced in the sky, and those who are forced to walk to the various sources to carry water that do not receive in their pipes.

Various specialists have insisted that recovering the system is not impossible, and in fact it would be cheaper to do so than to try to sustain its inoperation. The Orinoco group, for example, among other civil society initiatives, has presented roadmaps on how to recover the water system in all its phases. And they all agree that, with all that has been spent on repairs, the system could have been recovered. But Venezuelans, as today, have not guaranteed their right to clean water.