By Alfonso Fernandez
CARACAS – Residents of Caracas are preparing for cutoffs in water service lasting up to 48 hours between November and May, a situation that the Venezuelan government blames on the weather and the opposition blames on the lack of investment in infrastructure.
Engineer Alejandro Hitcher, the president of Hidrocapital, the public entity that manages the water supply networks around the country, said in an interview with Efe that the water deficit is “about 25 percent” and he guaranteed that the cutbacks will last a “maximum of 48 hours.”
He also said that “they will be rotating,” or staggered, in different zones of the capital.
Hitcher said that, besides the lack of rainfall caused by the El Niño weather phenomenon, the situation is due to the “waste and frivolous use” of water by the richest sectors of society, and he added that the rationing measures are a chance to “foster a culture of responsible consumption.”
The water rationing decreed by the government of President Hugo Chavez will begin on Nov. 2 and will be maintained until the beginning of May 2010, when the rainy season begins in Venezuela.
The leftist leader last week harshly attacked “half-hour showers” and said that three minutes in the shower “is more than enough” to maintain adequate daily hygiene.
“I’ve said: one minute to get wet, another to soap yourself up and the third to rise yourself off. The rest is a waste,” said Chavez, who also is facing protests over the continuous power blackouts in the interior of the country that have motivated him to acknowledge “gaps” in the electric grid.
And the government is also preparing plans to interrupt electricity service, a move that has provoked substantial criticism in the oil-rich country.
In the poor Caracas neighborhood of Mariches, the lack of water is something with which residents are already familiar, since it has been more than three months that they’ve been waiting for the pipes needed to transport it to be installed. At present, the water arrives on cistern trucks that must enter the area via steep and unsafe narrow streets and alleyways.
“It’s not easy to work as a cistern truck driver,” Carlos Martos told Efe, relating stories of colleagues whose trucks were hijacked at gunpoint until local residents made off with all the precious water.
“We’re dried out! We’re not camels!” clamored residents upon the arrival of the first cistern truck.
“How many more trucks are coming?” asked the locals anxiously while they produced empty barrels and other containers from the most unexpected places.
Each family has the right to about 60 liters (16 gallons), which is distributed free by the administration of Sucre, the municipality that contains a large number of the shantytowns of eastern Caracas.
But it’s very difficult to get the water to those who need it and everyone acknowledges that an emergency exists.
“Here, the water never arrives on time. When they pump it through the pipes, the neighbors up the hillside opened the pipes and it doesn’t get here. And what does arrive is disgusting. We have to boil it,” Javier Aguilar,
a carpenter in the neighborhood, told Efe.
Aguilar, who said that he had experienced similar situations over the past 20 years, added that residents have to “buy” the rest of their water from local firefighters who, taking advantage of the need, come by daily and sell water to them “at 8 or 10 bolivars” ($4 to $5, at the official exchange rate).
Though the Sucre administration is led by Chavez opponent Carlos Ocariz, the head of the Municipal Water Institute, Norberto Bausson, sidestepped the confrontation with the government, but emphasized that in the past decade “they haven’t invested in the distribution network” and they have “abandoned the infrastructure.”
“It’s true that the El Niño phenomenon has affected things with the scarcity of rain, but it’s (also) true that the water network has not been adequate for the demand of a population that has grown in the last decade ... That is to say, there are 500,000 more people and they have the same network,” Bausson said.
Bausson agreed with Hitcher about the wasting of water in Caracas saying that the per capita consumption in Venezuela is 100 liters higher than the Latin American average, and in the hemisphere that figure is only exceeded by the United States.
Venezuela is, after Brazil, the country with the greatest water resources in the region, but the capital’s almost 6 million residents will be forced to turn off the tap for one or two days per week in the coming months. EFE