Punto Fijo, November 19, 2017 – Approximately 100 students, academics, professionals, and activists, met this November 15-17 for the Bolivarian University of Venezuela’s 5th Environmental Management Conference in Los Taques, Paraguaná, Falcón. The theme was the right to water.
Over three days, participants shared experiences from across the country on topics as diverse as watershed management, urban water supply, irrigation, environmental education, and cultural identity.
Learning from “cultures of thirst” in Paraguaná
The conference took place, appropriately, in the arid Paraguaná peninsula. Here, in the dusty desert landscape, people know a lot about living with thirst.
Located at the tail end of the state’s water system, piped water is sporadic and unpredictable at best. At worst, households and entire neighborhoods have gone years without piped water.
Geographical features, poor maintenance of water reservoirs, electricity black-outs and an overall state of “ungovernability” combine to produce one of Venezuela’s most water-stressed areas.
Many Paraguanians get by filling tanks from expensive cistern trucks, buying bottles of unregulated “filtered” water, or even collecting water from questionable surface sources.
Plan Casimba: Local Solutions
Yet, according to some, solutions lie right under people’s feet: in the peninsula’s vast underground water supplies (aquifers) and extensive, though neglected, wells. Some 174 of them.
This is the proposal advanced by Plan Casimba, one of the many initiatives discussed at the conference.
The project is working with communities to restore traditional wind-powered wells (casimbas). Many of these were long abandoned with the promise of mega-infrastructural solutions from the mainland.
Casimba’s vision? To create localized water distribution systems, which will eventually be administered and maintained by the communities themselves.
Local systems create autonomy, given the difficulty of bringing piped water from the main reservoir on the mainland. Wind power is an ideal solution since the peninsula suffers from regular power disruptions.
What’s more, organizers see the project as not just rescuing wells but also the “Paraguanian identity,” including local knowledge about water production and use.
Of Casimba’s major achievements to date has been to promote cooperation between a series of institutions and community groups. Among the many collaborators are the Universidad Bolivariana de Venezuela (UBV), public water utility Hidrofalcón, the Venezuelan Institute of Scientific Research (IVIC), the Francisco Miranda National Experimental University (UNEFM), and state oil company PDVSA.
Despite real results to date, the team is realistic about the challenges ahead in today’s Venezuela. These include a lack of resources and entrenched political and economic interests that block alternative solutions.
“Of course it’s a long struggle!” reflects IVIC’s Dr. Luz Esther Sánchez. “That’s why we need to start now!”
“Constructing a Communal State through Water”
This project exemplifies the broad conception of the right to water debated at the conference. This vision goes beyond the right to water access to include the right to participate and also the protection of environmental and cultural rights.
One concrete demand was for the inclusion of a water chapter in Venezuela’s new Constitution. The Magna Carta currently protects water as a public good (bien público), but stops short of specifically naming the right to water or mandating watershed protection. And it’s no secret that Venezuela’s water sources have not been well maintained.
The need for a culture of collaboration and cooperation (convivencia) was also a key theme. In both urban and rural areas, individualistic solutions to the water crisis had been found to harm others and undermine sustainability.
“The idea is to bring the philosophy of the plan Casimba to our water companies, to our cities and beyond” explained UBV Engineer Ediccio Ramirez, reflecting on the importance of collective solutions. “In this way, we are constructing a communal state through water."