Drought: a predictable crisis

Burgeoning population, coupled with the lack of new water infrastructure, little attention to maintenance of reservoirs, and wastage are factors that are now converging to aggravate water shortage

The Lagartijo reservoir dried up in May 2014. It is now out of commission (Karla Calderón)
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Saturday February 13, 2016  12:00 AM
Water shortages have rippled across the country forcing authorities to declare emergency in seven regions and impose severe rationing to try to keep supply through May, when rainy season is expected to start. However, experts say the crisis could be avoided, as the current situation was entirely "predictable."

Ecosocialism and Water Minister Ernesto Paiva has, on several occasions, told the media that Venezuela has seen three consecutive years of extensive drought associated with the global El Niño weather phenomenon, whose impacts cause lack of rainfall and increased temperature in the country. "The fact that it's been three consecutive years has prevented the reservoirs to recover," Paiva told state-run television on January 22.

Being El Nino a weather phenomenon beyond human control, we cannot stop it from happening. But it is feasible to reduce its impact on the population, as it is "highly predictable," says hydrometeorologist Abraham Salcedo, head of the Department of Hydrometeorology of the Faculty of Engineering of the Central University of Venezuela (UCV).

"There is a planning problem. The crisis currently afflicting us could have been totally avoided," says Salcedo, adding that it was known since last year that El Niño would impact Venezuela.

A crisis foretold

The negative effects of El Niño are so worrying that Resolution 70/110, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 23 2015,recognizes that "the 2015/16 El Niño phenomenon is already occurring and that it is likely to have a global impact, in particular on developing countries."

The resolution above all stresses the gravity and urgency of the matter, since "the majority of international seasonal climate outlook models indicate that the 2015/16 El Niño phenomenon will strengthen slightly before the end of 2015 and that its peak three-month average strength, expected to occur from the period between October and December 2015 to the period between December 2015 and February 2016, would place it among the three strongest previous El Niño events since 1950."

Hydrologist José Rafael Córdova says that the occurrence of El Niño "can be predicted with a high level of confidence." And he adds that the National Centers for Environmental Prediction (NCEP-NOAA) and other institutions routinely develop updates on El Niño conditions.

On November 16 2015, the World Meteorological Organization reported that ocean and atmospheric conditions over the tropical Pacific Ocean in October 2015 showed signs of a strong El Niño. In fact, the UN took this report as a reference to urge countries to develop strategies to "prevent, mitigate and repair the socioeconomic and environmental impacts of the 2015/16 El Niño phenomenon."

No new approaches to an old problem

According to analyzes conducted by the Venezuelan National Institute of Meteorology and Hydrology (Inameh), in the last 40 years during the periods 1973-1974; 1982-1983; 1997-1998; 2002-2003; 2009-2010, and 2013-2015 rains have been below historical averages. That is why Córdova, who is also a professor at the graduate program in hydraulic engineering at UCV, has no hesitation in saying that these droughts "have occurred in the past and will continue to happen in the future, but their impact will depend on the intensity with which they occur and the ability of water supply systems to meet demands."

Water scarcity does not only affect the supply of drinking water, it also compromises the irrigation systems needed for agricultural production, and influences the generation of hydroelectric power. This will be discussed in further detail in an upcoming Dossier.

Against this backdrop, the question arises of whether Venezuela is prepared to face the 2016 drought.

According to engineer Eduardo Páez Pumar, a member of the Venezuelan Engineers' Association (CIV) and secretary general of the Association for Comprehensive Public Policies (Aipop), the answer is "no". Páez Pumar says that the country does not have an adequate contingency plan in place to deal with the crisis because there are not sufficient water reservoirs to meet demand.

According to all the experts consulted, there are multiple factors converging to aggravate the crisis, including the increase in population, the insufficient construction of new reservoirs, the lack of maintenance of existing reservoirs and irrational use of water resources.

According to Páez Pumar, the main problem lies in the fact that in the last two decades the Venezuelan population has increased considerably, but no new infrastructure to collect water has been built accordingly. "There is a direct relationship between the amount of stored water and the population. Over the last 18 years no new reservoirs have been built; that is, no additional water was stored for the additional 9 million inhabitants we have now in Venezuela," says Páez Pumar.

An example of this is the Caracas Metropolitan Aqueduct, which supplies the Capital District and parts of Miranda state.

According to figures provided by Páez Pumar, the water demand for this system has increased in recent years in at least 795 liters per second, following the construction of housing units by the Great Housing Mission Venezuela social program in the Greater Caracas area, which are home to approximately 171,700 people living in at least 34,349 new homes.

Electrical engineer Miguel Lara Guarenas, former general manager of Venezuela's state power agency Operation of Interconnected Systems (OPSIS), says that Venezuela is more affected by drought than other countries because the infrastructure required "to handle unfavorable hydrology with or without the presence of El Niño, is currently insufficient, either because it has not been built, because its construction is delayed or because the one that was built doesn't operate properly."

At least 98 reservoirs have been built in Venezuela since 1929, of which only two were completed in the period from 1999 to 2015, namely: the Caruachi Dam, a hydroelectric power station built across the Caroni River (Bolivar state, south) which came online in March 2006, and the Tres Ríos reservoir (Zulia state, east), which supplies water to the city of Maracaibo and is used to irrigate 20,000 hectares in the region.

One reservoir was inaugurated in 1929; another seven during the 1940s; six more in the 1950s, with the largest number of works built between 1959 and 1998 - a total of 73 dams.However, not all are operational. Páez Pumar explains that some of these reservoirs have been lost to sediment build-up; environmental damage in the river basin; erosion; logging in the headwaters; pollution, among other reasons.

Over the last 10 years, the construction of two new dams began, namely: Tocoma (Bolivar state) and Cuira (Miranda state, center), but both construction projects are behind schedule. The Tocoma dam, also known as the Manuel Piar Hydroelectric Power Plant, began construction in 2007. It is the fourth hydroelectric plant built across the Lower Caroní River. Construction is in a very advanced stage; however, additional funds are needed to finish it. It is expected to be completed by next year.

Construction of the Cuira Dam began in 2011 as part of the works of the Tuy IV system (Miranda state). The dam is being built across the Cuira River in the Barlovento region. It will have a storage capacity of 700 million cubic meters and will supply drinking water to more than 5 million inhabitants of the Capital District and neighboring Miranda and Vargas states. According to the latest update of the National Plan for Utilization of Water Resources, prepared by the former Ministry of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources, the dam should already be operational. However, the current authorities expect the work to be completed by 2017.

Less than optimal functioning

Those reservoirs that are still functioning are not in top condition, though. Páez Pumar claims that several reservoirs are in critical condition because of their low water level, while others are almost totally sedimented for lack of proper maintenance.

Bathymetric surveys conducted on several reservoirs across the country by Professor José Gaspar, of the Department of Hydraulics of the Faculty of Engineering (UCV), show that at least seven have already lost capacity at a higher rate than the initial estimates. These are: Guaremal (Yaracuy state), Los Quediches (Lara state), Pedregal (Falcón state), Guanapito (Guárico state), El Guamo (Monagas state) Cumaripa (Yaracuy state) and Maticora (Falcón state).

Pollution is another problem affecting several reservoirs in the country, like La Mariposa, Lake Valencia and Pao-Cachinche, among others. The water hyacinth Eichhornia crassipes has spread like a green carpet over two-thirds of La Mariposa reservoir. This, according to the specialists, "points toward a high concentration of nutrients and phosphorus from wastewater discharge and fertilizers."

Critical levels

The president of the National Institute of Meteorology and Hydrology (Inameh), José Gregorio Sottolano, said in a press release early in January that the reservoirs along the northern coast were in "critical condition."  A few days later, in statements given to the media on January 18, the minister for Ecosocialism and Water said that 18 reservoirs were in critical condition, with some being "very close to the red line." He added that the most affected states were Carabobo, Falcón, Nueva Esparta, Sucre, Vargas and Zulia, which, along with the Capital District, have declared a state of emergency in response to the water crisis.

As reported by Hidrocapital, the public water management firm for the Greater Caracas area, on January 21, 2016, five reservoirs currently supplying the Greater Caracas area well below optimal levels. These are Ocumarito, Taguaza, Agua Fría, El Guapo and Camatagua, part of the Metropolitan Aqueduct which distributes water to Caracas, Ciudad Losada (Cúa - Charallave), Tuy, Ciudad Fajardo (Guarenas-Guatire) and Caucagua. The Lagartijo reservoir, which is also part of this water system, has been out of commission since May 2014 when dried up.

The Camatagua reservoir has become a concern for many experts, since the volume of stored water was 26% of its capacity at the time of writing this article. That is, it had only 460 million cubic meters of water in storage, when in fact it can store up to 1,571,000 cubic meters. This reservoir supplies 60% of the water consumed in Caracas. Additionally, it was built to irrigate 12,000 hectares, but it is not fulfilling this function now because all the water in it is intended for human consumption.

According to experts, the volume of water in the Camatagua reservoir is down 50 million m3 per month, so it has only enough water in storage for the next five months under current conditions.

That is why Hidrocapital started a Special Plan of Drinking Water Supply on January 4 for the Altos Mirandinos, Barlovento, Caracas, Guarenas, Guatire and Valles del Tuy regions. Professor Jose Rafael Cordova says that had the entire Tuy IV system (including the Cuira reservoir) been built, it would have not been necessary to implement this rationing plan.

Since early this year, water shortage protests have become more frequent rippling across areas of the Capital District and Miranda state, and also in other parts of the country, like Zulia state, where waterworks Hidrolago  has imposed a rationing scheme of 36 continuous hours of water supply and service  cut for up to 108 hours.

In general, the picture is not encouraging, and experts warn that the situation may worsen. Abraham Salcedo notes that temperatures will begin to rise from mid-February, making the occurrence of forest fires more likely, along with the further spread of cases of the Zika virus, Chikungunya and Dengue as mosquitoes thrive in warmer temperatures.


Translated by Sancho Araujo