Venezuelan President Maduro and his predecessor Chavez have an extraordinary ability to create scarcity from abundance. Venezuela has the world’s largest proven oil reserves, but now suffers from petrol shortages. There was once a flourishing agricultural sector, now children die of malnutrition and people have lost an average of 11kg in the past year.
Venezuela has the twelfth largest fresh water reserves in the world, but fully 82% of Venezuelans now lack access to running water. That’s worse than 20 years ago—in 1998 nearly 87% had running water. Three quarters of public health centres do not receive regular running water, and the breakdown of the sewage system in hospitals has led to a surge in patient deaths.
In a recent interview with The Venezuela Campaign, SOS Telemedicina Cursos’s Federica Davila exposed the shocking conditions inside the University of Central Venezuela’s hospital, where patients must flush toilets with buckets and human waste is stored next to beds.
Water distribution and sanitation networks cannot be maintained due to a lack of spare parts, and most pumps, valves, and pipes are significantly beyond their expected lifetime. Treatment plants lie abandoned and reservoirs are contaminated with sewage. Caracas’ water utility company Hidrocapital has only 20 of its 400 maintenance teams operational, leaving it struggling to maintain the city’s collapsing infrastructure.
Corruption has destroyed the functionality of the water and sewage treatment systems. Politicians have invested only token amounts after the shortages began in 2005. Keeping water prices artificially low eroded utilities’ ability to maintain their systems, and political loyalty has become the main criterion for appointments. According to Jose de Viana, a former President of water utility Hidrocapital, the sector has been fundamentally de-professionalised.
Maduro’s meddling has just worsened matters. Since 2014 the body responsible for the water sector has been constantly reorganised. The ‘Ministry of the People’s Power for the Environment’ was abolished in favour of the ‘Vice-Ministry of Ecosocialism, Housing and Habitat’, which was then subsumed into the ‘Ministry of the People’s Power for Ecosocialism and Water’, which was split into two, the ‘Ministry of Ecosocialism’ and the ‘Ministry of Water Care’. Since 2014 there have also been five different Presidents of Hidroven (the agency responsible for drinking water).
Access to water is something the UN demands as a basic human right, and which people in prosperous countries think very little about. But without running water people must spend hours a day searching for water that is often unsafe to drink, leaving themselves vulnerable to horrible water-borne diseases—illnesses that Venezuelan healthcare cannot treat due to a lack of water. Bacteria and mosquitoes flourish in the buckets of stagnant water people must store, driving up the prevalence of Zika, Dengue, and Chikungunya. The water crisis in Venezuela is just yet another aspect of the humanitarian crisis that corruption and mismanagement have brought upon the country.
More information on the Venezuela Campaign can be found on their website.