"Here they come, here they come!" exclaim the neighbours of Cardon’s 2nd street in northwest Caracas, as the men carry pipes to expand their self-built water system.
Light begins to shine in the concrete cave as the plastic rafts and lifeguards in which the neighbours returning from a long expedition start to appear.
They, the youngest in the community, had worked for seven consecutive days and up to six hours a day, submerged in a well of cold water, in order to lay the 50 meters of pipes which were needed [to extend the system].
"Deep inside the cave, the water is less than 13 degrees and is around 11 meters deep, but it is crystal clean. Luckily, we have a diver who is supporting the community," Pedro León told Sputnik as he walked into the cave to show off his community’s achievement.
Many of those coming out of the depths of the tunnel, which looks like a mine, had purple lips and were shivering with cold.The San Jose de Avila tunnels are two unfinished projects off Boyacá Avenue, which is also known as the Cota Mil bypass. It is a highway pegged to the foothills of the mountains bordering Caracas’ northern limits with the Waraira Repano [national park], and which should have connected the capital with the coastal La Guaira state [in 2017 when the 10.3 km-long tunnels were due to be completed]. Once at the end of the Cota Mil, one must go down Baralt Avenue and return as if going to take the highway again, and here one can stop to see the remains of the project.
The path to the tunnels is full of debris, and the first thing you see are people coming and going with plastic containers to load water, some in hand and others on wheels.
Before reaching the tunnels, an elevated plastic tube crosses the road and drops directly to the nearby tower blocks called Las Terrazas.
At least eight communities nearby, including Cotiza and La Esperanza, have applied the same idea as Cardon, which looks to end the suffering caused by irregularities in [Caracas’] water supply.
As one approaches the dark mouth of these tunnels, which have a swampy surface and are full of debris from the work and the people who now frequent it, you can observe some men and women washing their clothes and hanging them to dry in the sun.
Right next to this open-air laundromat scene, there are children of all ages in the middle of the tubes converted into a makeshift water park. They play as if they were at the river or the beach, swimming and diving, while others hang themselves from a kind of zip line they made with an elastic cable hanging from the roof of the tunnel.
Inside the tunnel
When one enters the caves, the smell of dampness becomes overpowering, the atmosphere turns cold, and in less than 100 meters you can see the water, with some wooden, plastic and anime objects floating in it.
On June 14, a large group of Cardon’s neighbours visited the caves. The community organised itself according to the roles of its members. "Here, we [the women] take care of vital supplies. We have water, tea, coffee, food and towels for those who went out to the pipes," Diomelis Leon, 47, explained.
Younger men assume the task of submerging themselves in the water, using all the tools that the elder men have placed at their disposal. For their part, the elderly stay on the surface, leading efforts to adapt the pipeline.
"The elderly don't come into the water, but they're the ones who shovel the dirt. Here we all work. Our motto is: teamwork triumphs for sure," Leon added.
The inhabitants of Cardon started this pipework three years ago and have managed to link them up in a system which now extends for over 1.5 kilometres, carrying water from the tunnel to their street by gravity.
During this period, families have spent up to three consecutive months without running water, a situation which was worsened since the COVID-19 lockdown began in March, they confirm.
However, having their own system alleviates the suffering caused by this problem. On 2nd Street, the neighbours have a tap with a 50-metre hose attached that reaches the houses. Each family is assigned certain days and hours to be supplied with the water from the tunnel without the need to queue waiting for water trucks or walk long distances with buckets.
"What we've achieved seems great to me, it’s so that we can have water without having to carry it ourselves," said Yuli Pinto.
For his part, Yuli Cartaya assured that the problem in this community is age-old, explaining that "We used to have water from a spring, but the suffering started more than 40 years ago when they constructed the Cota Mil bypass."
More and more families have arrived at this tunnel which constantly supplies water, and Cardon's neighbours have decided to submerge their pipeline deeper into the well to prevent it extracting dirty water.
When the project started, a neighbour who is also a bioanalyst assisted them in conducting a water test "and it turned out to be fit for consumption," they explained. Nonetheless, as a precaution, some of the residents of this sector use it for cleaning and bathing, but not for drinking or cooking.
However, one of the men washing their clothes here, who preferred not to be identified, told us that not everyone who comes to this site has access to an alternative water source, with many electing to boil the water before drinking it "to kill any bacteria.”
This tunnel, which in 2012 was part of the Cota Mil extension plan, has thus been transformed into a well for many communities suffering from the instability of the public service.
Magda Gibelli is the Sputnik correspondent in Caracas, Venezuela.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Venezuelanalysis editorial staff.
Translation by Paul Dobson for Venezuelanalysis.