Tropical waterfight: the struggle for basic services in Caracas, Venezuela

Some Caracas residents pay out of their own pockets to repair water tubing

A combination of climate change and an incompetent, inefficient state bureaucracy has left basic services such as water and electricity as something of a luxury for many caraqueños, and contrary to the rhetoric of the chavista propaganda machine, it's a situation that is worsening.

Get up, check the taps, then plan your day. That's pretty much routine for the vast majority of caraqueños. In the rancho (hilltop barrio) where I live, the water goes off - on average - 2-3 days a week, and that's actually pretty good going in comparison. Residents in some of the Petare ranchos, on the eastern side of the city, report having not seen water come out of their taps in over 6 months. It's a state of affairs that is exacerbating at a rapid rate.

The most salient explanation for this is climate change. El Largatijo - the main reservoir that supports Caracas' 4 million odd inhabitants - is drying so fast that (I imagine) you can almost see the water evaporate with the naked eye. In just 12 months, El Noticiero Digital reports, it has lost 80% of its reserves, decreasing from 24 million cubic metres to 4.5 million cubic metres. Caraqueños have now stopped talking of that old tropical climate staple - the rainy season, instead throwing their arms in the air, at a loss to describe this new microclimate in which the 35 degree sun burns for 10-11 hours a day, interspersed with the occasional shower every 4-5 days. And the President of Hidrocapital, the national water agency, has told the capital's residents to brace themselves for even worse, with a "severe drought" expected next year.

As a result, much of Caracas has evolved into a postcode lottery. While the quintas (large, colonial-style houses) in some of the nicer neighbourhoods have their own contingency water arrangements for when the taps run dry, the hilltop ranchos in places like Petare are largely reliant on the service provided by lorry drivers, who fill their vehicles with water tanks and then sell them on in parched neighbourhoods, where residents buy en masse. The prices for water off these lorries fluctuate wildly, but one going rate I saw was 8BsF (around US$4 at the official rate or US$1.60 at street rate) for 200 litres. Of course, this water isn't drinkable - for that you'll either have to purify it yourself or buy it from a shop, where a 1.5 litre bottle fetches around 5BsF (US$2.50/US$1). With the monthly minimum wage at just 800BsF, many poorer households make use of spare liquid supplies in their local fire stations for washing and cooking.

However, the blame for the water crisis cannot be blamed on global warming alone. Never one to be seen to neglect su pueblo, Hugo Chávez had promised a comprehensive rationing programme, which was supposed to be implemented in the first couple of weeks of October but the details of which have yet to be properly disseminated, meaning that the plan largely remains as a declaration of intent. The announcement provoked wry laughs from many Venezuelans, who retorted that a rationing programme already exists and has resolved nothing. Indeed, Instituto Municipal de Aguas de Sucre (IMAS) - the municipal agency in charge of distributing Caracas' water - admits that it cuts the water supply to various barrios on a regular basis, using it as ammunition for its ongoing mudfight with Hidrocapital, whom it claims supplies it with insufficient pressure in order to pump water up into the ranchos. While much of the city has accustomed to losing water on Sundays, some neighbourhoods document leaking hydrants and burst mains from which water spurts onto the street. Many rancho residents also report poorly maintained piping systems, which promptly get blocked by debris and then rendered useless, or worse, full of sediment and sticks which contaminate the water, making it unfit to even wash in.

In the meantime, some desperate residents associations - on top of organising joint payment for the water lorries - have undertaken to collect money in order to conduct their own pipe maintenance. In other areas, households are forced to rely on the solidarity of a neighbour - one thing which thankfully is not lacking in the ranchos! - and a long hose in order to stock up on enough water to survive, boiling it before drinking.

Another basic service which many caraqueños cannot count on is electricity in their homes. This, perhaps rather surprisingly, is possibly even more of a bone of contention than water provision. This is largely due to the manner in which Venezuela's GDP has increased in la época chavista. Hugo's strategy of pumping nationalised petrodólares into the economy as a means of increasing wealth distribution are (in)famous worldwide, yet the much-vaunted (usually by First World leftists) improvements to the quality of life for the average Venezuelan have been piecemeal and often too minimal in order to instigate wholesale changes. With electricity consumption predicted to increase nationally by up to 7% in this year alone, many first-time visitors to the ranchos are surprised by the prevalence of directv (cable) satellites and SUVs in areas in which some children will literally go thirsty or become ill from contaminated water.

Faced with this state of affairs, some caraqueños will shake their heads and tsk tsk at the "consumerist poverty" in which Venezuela finds itself, as if the country's problems were somehow self-imposed by a national culture of ignorance and materialism. I don't think this is a fair evaluation, although it is an easy answer to attempts to comprehend Caracas' shockingly high homicide rate and the prevalence of reggaetón music (and at that, one which detaches the speaker from this sorry state of affairs).

Of course, the culpable parties are largely in the political class, whose collective mismanagement and embezzlement are endemic to the unwieldy and overwhelmingly bureaucratic nature of a nationalised party-state. However, possibly realising the political capital of a tendency towards self-criticism on the part of some Venezuelans regarding "hegemonic" and "gringo" influences in their object-heavy lifestyles, Chávez has also announced some stringent austerity measures regarding electricity consumption, including a ban on the import of high-power electrical appliances. This represents yet another populist stroke of genius on the part of El Presidente, but it wholly fails to take into account the necessity of appliances in the kitchenettes of much rancho accommodation, where gas power is almost unheard of - meaning that cooking, water boiling and the preparation of arepas (the Venezuelan staple diet, a delicious corn flour pancake filled with...well, pretty much whatever you can get your hands on) is done off the mains.

Moreover, the cuts were introduced as a means of offsetting - and distracting from - the US$800 million loan the gobierno bolivariano has taken off of the Inter-American Development Bank. American bank loans were, of course, the modus operandi of Latin American governments until the series of economic collapses around the continent around start of the millennium, invoking the initiation of much anti-imperialist rhetoric about a "new Latin American politics" and a break from economic dependence on the US, with Chávez himself as the international spokesman.

The loan has been received cautiously by many Venezuelans. The President of the National Electric Corporation responded negatively in the press on Oct 21 to pressure from the government to raise consumption prices. In response, on Oct 23, Chávez announced a new President of the Federation, a crony of his and (in his own words) "a member of the working class". This was important apparently, since according to Chávez, the problems with the electricity sector are "not only technical, but [also] political". Presumably his class background and political consciousness will therefore make him more receptive to the idea of rate increments. More importantly, Fetraelec - the main electricity workers' union - have stated that the biggest obstacle facing the national electricity supply is in fact one of inefficiency due to, once again, a lack of maintenance.

In response to the water crisis, some barrios have held rolling demonstrations, blockading motorways and the city’s arterial routes, calling for the damaging row between Hidrocapital and IMAS to end. Thus far though, only a handful of barrios have managed to organise for struggle, with many others – such as the one your intrepid reporter currently calls home – are paralysed by the reverberations of federal politics on a micro level in Venezuela. The constant grandstanding of Chávez and his opponents in Parliament over the best way to improve the quality of life for Venezuela’s poorest has fractured the fabric of everyday politics, pushing this particular rancho to the point of dysfunction.

On a finishing note, I’ll add an anecdotal example: when I moved in, I asked my flatmate where to put the rubbish. “There’s a spot down the road where we all throw our rubbish, near where the Jeeps stop,” she told me. And sure enough she was right. A few yards down the hill, a frankly bewildering and pungent pile of rubbish had congregated, with bags stacked high and cardboard boxes with pictures of TVs blocking a ditch, while the general filth had started to snake its way into the dusty road. It had become a gathering point for the local vermin and rabid guard dogs patrolled its swelling perimeters.

“But how come noone collects the rubbish?” I asked.

“Well the residents’ association here split in two – with much acrimony - between the chavistas and the antichavistas. The two cliques can’t even be in the same room together so it’s inconceivable that they meet to organise rubbish collection. There was talk of circulating a petition, but in the meantime, we’re using that spot down the hill.”

UPDATE (04/11/09): Amongst much confusion and misinformation, Hidrocapital finally announced its water rationing programme. Caraqueños will have to endure two days a week without running water, "until May next year at least", the water company says (so much longer then). My municipio is pencilled for no water on Fridays and Saturdays, however since the programme's implementation on Monday, we've already gone 24 hours without.

Hot on the heels of water rationing, we have also been promised electricity rationing. The low rainfall has affected the efficiency of the hydroelectric plant upon which Caracas is largely dependant for its power. The antichavista right seized upon the recent spate of blackouts as a means of mobilising its supporters to demonstrate outside the Corpoelec - the national electricity commission, concluding with a self-congratulatory rally in which one leader accused the government of not "being dedicated to the people's needs" (unlike the business cabal on the right then?).

Posted By

Caiman del Barrio
Oct 28 2009 03:57

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Comments

Steven.
Nov 2 2009 18:45

Just got round to finishing this, great post, very interesting. Look forward to more contributions in the future!

If you felt like documenting some of the stuff you see in a photo gallery that might be cool, if you've been taking photos of things...

Caiman del Barrio
Nov 2 2009 23:41

Gotta update this, water rationing was supposed to start this week with my municipio supposedly pencilled in for today...yet we have water! Electricity rationing is also scheduled to start.

On the upside, it's rained 2 days in a row. smile

Will take some photos although I don't have a digicam, been using disposables.