Persistent disregard for escalating issues over the years has thrust Venezuela into a profound humanitarian crisis.
While you’re reading this, a child is drinking sewer water in Venezuela.
Mothers are wiping dishes with dirty towels and wearing filthy clothes because there is no water for washing.
Malaria is back. Doctors cannot perform surgeries because there is no water in the hospitals.
Schools are shut down. There is no water to flush the toilets or wash their hands. Teachers have fled the country.
This is the latest crisis in Venezuela. On March 7, 2019, the Guri hydroelectric plant shut down, sending most of the country into a blackout, cutting off telecommunications, and leaving the metro system dead on the tracks. Approximately 80% of the country’s electricity is on a grid that was first built in the 1950s and ‘60s before the discovery of the oil reserves.
With water flow severely restricted, Venezuelans have resorted to extreme measures to gather water for drinking and cooking. Videos posted to internet media sites show people bathing in city drains. Backup generators installed to compensate for frequent power outages sit uselessly due to a shortage of diesel gas in a country that sits atop the world’s largest oil reserves.
Families in Caracas took to public parks to try to fill plastic containers from hoses. Some tried to skim water from the streets, while others caught water from the open sewer system. On the outskirts of the city, lines of people with their plastic containers formed along paths up into the mountains, all in the hopes of transporting water back to their families.
Shortages of water in Venezuela exacerbate health concerns such as the return of malaria, a preventable and treatable disease in normal circumstances. Stagnant, stockpiled water is a breeding ground for mosquitoes which also spread Zika, yellow fever, dengue, and chikungunya. Eradicated diseases such as measles and diphtheria are also back. Child malnutrition is on the rise. Medicines of all types are in extremely limited quantities, and there is a dire need for even the basics, like vaccines and antibiotics. Still, they cannot pass borders into Venezuela right now.
Nongovernmental agencies in Venezuela are doing the legwork to collect data about how the lack of food, water, and medicines is affecting citizens. According to the surveys, three out of four people don’t have regular access to water, and 11 percent of the people of Caracas live with skin and stomach problems, both of which can be attributed to dirty water. Even when the water does run, it is untreated and often unfit for consumption. This has also led to the cancellation of surgeries and other medical procedures when medical equipment cannot be properly cleaned.
These problems are not new. A series of reports from Bloomberg in 2018 explain day-to-day city life:
“Dishes are brushed off and reused, and clothing is not something regularly laundered, though, personally, I draw the line at multiple wearings of underwear or socks. You ask friends whether it’s okay to flush. You often do not. We’re sweaty and, yes, smelly, especially in the rainy season when the humidity can top 80 percent. We’re at risk, too, because water stagnating in the vessels that people stash around their homes attracts mosquitoes; malaria rates have soared.
The poorest, as usual, have it the worst, though no one is spared. Hospitals and schools, posh neighborhoods and slums, they all go without water—at times for weeks on end—
We’re not ashamed to ask to use an acquaintance’s shower, and banging on doors in the wee hours to sound the alert that water has suddenly started flowing isn’t annoying but proof you’re a good neighbor. In a deeply divided nation, protesters of all political stripes have taken to the streets to block traffic and hoist signs saying ‘Water is a Right.’” (anonymous source)
Billions of dollars have been invested in water and electricity over the past two decades, but lack of upkeep and higher demands on the grid led to multiple failures. Former president of Hidrocapital Jose De Viana said, “For many years, this deterioration process was not noticeable, but now the water transport systems are very damaged.”
Inconsistent services, extreme water scarcity in the northern part of the country, lack of medical services, and increasing crime have driven almost four million people out of Venezuela as refugees… that’s 10 percent of the whole population of the country. This is a humanitarian crisis, and not just for people still in Venezuela. Refugees crossing the border into Columbia run the risk of being absorbed into military groups. Refugees who formed caravans and made an attempt to get to the United States through Mexico made the news, but didn’t make it into the U.S. Smaller places, like the island of Trinidad, are overwhelmed by the refugees. Trinidad— roughly the size of Rhode Island—is not equipped to handle the influx of people with all of their many needs, according to Trinidadian academic Michele Reis, an expert on migration.
Many people might wonder why one power outage or a shortage of water would propel a significant part of the population of a country out. As far back as 2001, a study found that insufficient water and sanitation services occurred in 60% of Venezuelan municipalities, and millions of people lacked access to piped water and sanitation facilities. “In the whole country, you cannot even find ten waste treatment plants. So far, all collected waste has been dumped into open pits. The waste of 25 million inhabitants lies around the whole country. Why? A genuine waste treatment plan was simply never planned,” said Alejandro Luy, spokesman for Tierraviva.
It seems impossible after seeing the lengths people will go to gather water in Caracas, but Venezuela has abundant freshwater sources in the southeastern part of the country. Unfortunately, the lack of waste treatment is not the only source of pollution to these water sources. Most of the population (some 80%) of the country lives in the polluted coastal region. The water is brown or green when it does come through the taps, but even the 20 percent who live farther south are affected by oil development and fertilizer run-off, which also affects the many rivers, lakes, and underground aquifers.
A report in 2014 explains why Venezuelans still struggle with what water they have.
“Drinking water treatment plants haven’t been built in Venezuela for 15 years,” María Eugenia Gil, with the non-governmental Agua Clara Foundation, told Tierramérica. “They aren’t being replaced or maintained. The existing plants aren’t prepared to deal with the increase in quantity and diversity of pollutants, and they collapse, causing water shortages.”
Venezuelans are not only handling pollution improperly, but they also are not dealing with climate change and the effects of changing weather patterns with respect to rainfall. Venezuelans are used to water shortages because of commonplace water rations. Venezuela’s power grid relies on the level of water in the Guri dam. Water levels in the Guri hydroelectric dam are critically low, and the dam provides at least 65 percent of the country’s power. No water in the dam equals no power equals no water to people, which equals a no-win situation.
We are ALL in the middle of this, though we might not realize the terrible conditions. Clean water is something we should all have access to, something we should recognize as a human right. Venezuela is in crisis, but we have not paid attention.
World Water Day is March 22, and it’s time we all get familiar with the crisis in Venezuela and the lack of access to clean drinking water issues that are plaguing humans worldwide. We can all help. This year's World Water Day theme is Leaving No One Behind. Whoever you are, wherever you are, water is a human right.
The founders of PATH regularly speak about water rights and believe that everyone should have access to clean drinking water. PATH’s hybrid bottle model for REUSABILITY helps communities bring these issues to light. The PATH team is dedicated to bringing you the information you need to make wise water decisions for yourself and your fellow human beings around the world.