By Jeremy Morgan
Latin American Herald Tribune staff
CARACAS -- Compulsory cuts in water supplies began Monday in this city and other areas of Venezuela, leaving residents and businesses with little choice but to do without for periods of up to 48 hours at a stretch. The objective of all this is to slash consumption by 20% because water is in short supply.
The cause of the shortages is a matter of dispute. For President Hugo Chavez, who's now in his tenth year in power, the root problem lies in the shortcomings of capitalism. "With what do they fill the swimming pools of the rich?" he recently demanded to know. "With the water that they deny to the poor barrios. This is the capitalism of the lack of feelings, the lack of humanity."
The president wants Venezuelans to help get around the shortage by keeping their showertime to a minimum. He reckons three minutes should suffice --one to wet the body, one to apply shampoo and soap, and the last one to wash it all off. Plus a beaker of water to brush their teeth, and they're fit and ready for the outside world.
Others blame the weather. Alejandro Hitcher, head of the water company, Hidrocapital, has pointed to El Nino, a weather system that is often blamed a myriad of unstable climatic conditions in recent times. All this is happening towards the end of what used to be the clearly definable rainy season before global warming made the distinction between wet and dry climes in Caracas rather less regular than once they were.
However, Hitcher, too, has pointed the finger at wasteful consumption by "part of population" -- most likely, meaning the prosperous if he's on-message, even if he didn't quite say so. That said, water taps in poor districts are known to run indefinitely, or until they dry up, because nobody can turn them off.
Which raises the other villain of this piece. The government's critics claim that the real cause of the trouble is years, if not decades, of inadequate maintenance, or none at all. Be that as it may, Hitcher says the shortages will be in force until the official end of the dry season (which in prior days would soon be getting underway) in May next year.
But the problem isn't just water but electricity, too. This is an important consideration given that electricity is used to pump water from street level to water tanks on the roofs of apartment and office blocks.
While a program of power cuts apparently isn't officially on the cards -- or at least not yet -- Chavez has decreed into existence a new Electric Energy Ministry to oversee austerity measures. These will include measures to cut consumption including, it's said, a supposedly much less glitzy line in what's permitted in the way of street decorations during the approaching festive season.
Whether this will actually work is open to question. A lot of premises, most notably giant shopping malls, already have their range of pretty lights going at full blaze. Getting them to turn it all off might take some doing -- or perhaps not, as Chavez tends to see malls as a symbol of capitalistic excess consumption. Wags are cracking jokes about another flood of expropriations, and it would seem these are only partly made in fun.
The government is looking to cut electricity consumption by a fifth, too. In this context, there's talk of imposing heavy fines on those deemed not to be playing their full part in what Planning and Development Minister Jorge Giordani recently called "a campaign directed at avoiding waste."
Officials at the Sports Ministry have decreed that football matches will have to be played during daylight hours -- in other words, under the blazing sun rather than in the relative cool of the evening. Presumably, this will also apply to baseball, where matches tend to last a great deal longer.
The sense of impending crisis on the electricity front is not short of ominous harbingers. This year so far, five massive black-outs have hit large swathes of the country, on occassion for hours at a time. In large parts of the country outside of Caracas, power cuts are already a daily occurrence.
"For months now," says analyst Robert Bottome of Veneconomy, "the residents of Bolivar, Carabobo, Anzoategui, Yaracuy, Zulia, Miranda and Tachira states have suffered daily power outages which last up to 4 and 5 hours day. Now, Corpoelec has announced that there will be official electric power rationing along the central coastal region."
Again, there's argument about the cause of this strife. Officials point to sharply surging electricity demand, which they estimate is rising at an annual rate of six percent. Others say the real problem is on the supply side of the equation and, again, they argue that the cause of this is a poor investment record. "Years of not enough investment and lack of maintenance to the distribution lines and power generations systems," says Bottome.
The government, which nationalized electricity in 2007, appears to have taken this on board. Officials say $18 billion is to be invested to put things right and boost generation capacity by MW10,480 by 2014.