State Plans for Prolonged El Niño-Related Drought in Venezuela

It’s the rainy season in tropical Caracas. The weather service frequently predicts thunderstorms and the air is thick with humidity, yet the menacing clouds rarely produce more than a few drops. Venezuela’s The Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources expects half the usual rainfall for the season and is planning accordingly.

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cisterns
When the water pipes are empty or no pipes at all, people rely on blue rooftop cisterns. (Arlene Eisen- venezuelanalysis.com)
By Arlene Eisen - Venezuelanalysis.com
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Caracas, 11th June 2014 (Venezuelanalysis.com) – It’s the rainy season in tropical Caracas. The weather service frequently predicts thunderstorms and the air is thick with humidity, yet the menacing clouds rarely produce more than a few drops. Venezuela’s The Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources expects half the usual rainfall for the season and is planning accordingly.

In March of this year, at its VI World Forum on Water, the United Nations presented a study of drought in Latin America. The study concluded that excessive urbanization, globalization and climate change are responsible for leaving 800 million people in Latin America without access to safe drinking water and 2.5 million without access to bathroom facilities. In Venezuela, the percentage of people without access to potable water and toilets is comparatively small, in the single digits. Unlike those countries where water service is privatized and a source of profit, in Venezuela, water is provided and subsidized by a state-owned company. For 36% of Venezuela’s population, water is entirely free. For the rest, the cost of all utilities is subsidized and amounts to about 10% of the average worker’s pay.

UN Water Reports and newspaper headlines of raging forest fires and water rationing in California and catastrophic glacier melting in Peru all point to the ongoing ravages of climate change. Yet, corporate press in Venezuela and the U.S still blame the Venezuelan government for water scarcity. They lump water into the list of commodities whose appearance in supermarkets is erratic.

The incremental warming of the Pacific ocean caused by climate change has already caused devastating drought in some parts of the country. In Guárica the state-run electric company has scrambled to repair parched hydroelectrical transformers as soon as they break down. Yet, of the 54 needing repair, 13 remain to be fixed, resulting in frequent power outages.

Since December 2013, there have been some 800 drought-related wild fires. To limit wildfires, the Ministry has banned camping and camp fires in the national parks in drought zones.

Venezuelan meteorologists have noted that there used to be droughts every ten years. Now they come very two or three years. This year’s drought has interfered with the nation’s progress towards its goal of food sovereignty. With no rain since November 2013, some 70,000 cattle have died in Guárico State and milk production is down 38% in Zulia State. The draught has also reduced the corn harvest in Barinas and Guárico by 50%. On the plains of Portuguesa, heavy rains associated with El Niño cause flooding that threatens food harvests.

Preventing the worst ravages of draught

Traditionally, the poor have carried the burden of water shortages. However, in early May, the Venezuelan Water and Natural Resources Ministry announced a plan for a fair distribution of the scarcity. Countries with private water companies may raise water rates in order to cut water use, which deprives the most vulnerable sectors of access to clean water. In Venezuela, Minister Miguel Rodriguez explained how in parts of Caracas and the state of Miranda, water service would be limited in a way to guarantee equitable distribution. They are also taking special measures to ensure continued bathroom functioning in Caracas’ schools and hospitals. Still, as of this writing, daily water rationing has yet to be implemented.

For the last six weeks, in central Caracas, there has been one planned water service stoppage that lasted a few hours. The anti-government privately-owned press complained bitterly about water rationing and suspected that the wealthy areas of the city would receive an unfair allotment. This has not happened. Yet, lack of infrastructure has always made water access a struggle for the hundreds of thousands of people who live in the hillside shanties of Caracas.

Today, corn and potato producers together called for a meeting with the governor of Carabobo to gain his support for a contingency plan to protect against El Niño-related crop failures. The state of Carabobo borders on the northern region of Guarico where the drought is the worst. A representative of Asopapa, a federation of private growers, reported that 800 hectares of corn seed—which represents 75% of the cultivated corn in Guarica and Portuguesa-- are at risk. He proposed  the government invest 300,000 bolivares to reactivate deep water wells and pump water from the Chirgua River. He added that without water from the River, the potato harvest in Carabobo will also be threatened. He told reporters he expected cooperation from the governor since he had helped them on other occasions.

The worst of the El Niño is yet to come. Meteorologists expect that the last three months of 2014, and perhaps of the first of 2015, to be the driest.  The College of Engineers has warned that if the effect of El Niño intensifies, Venezuela will suffer a severe shortage of hydroelectric power in the coming year. The state will have to make the necessary adjustments.