Caracas' poor go thirsty amid political strife and poor planning

Despite recently giving birth and still recuperating from a cesarean section, 29-year-old Erika Bandres daily lugs a half-dozen five-gallon jugs of water from a nearby spring to her modest home in San Isidro, a neighborhood that forms part of the sprawling hillside slum of Petare.

“It’s awful, but what else can we do?” said the mother of five as she siphoned the water into a pail.

Venezuelans have long grappled with shortages of necessities from cooking oil to medicine and toilet paper, but now even the most basic of necessities — water — is in short supply in the nation’s capital.

The country’s dry season has dragged on longer than expected, and one of Caracas’ main reservoirs, Largartijo, has reached critical lows. To compensate, the government ordered citywide water rationing in May.

The emergency plan leaves parts of the city without water for as many as four days a week. However, inhabitants of some of the city’s poorest sectors are water-starved. In parts of Petare, in the Sucre municipality of Caracas, residents say they have gone without water for over a month. And in a highly polarized country, many say politics are at play as taps run dry.

To be sure, water service has long been an issue in Venezuela, especially in the country’s vast barrios, or slums, that spring up without municipal planning. Caraqueños also faced rolling water cuts in 2009. A drought so severe the next year reduced Venezuela’s signature Angel Falls, the world’s tallest waterfall, to a trickle.

In San Isidro, where many roads are unpaved and homes are often built with discarded materials, residents are at a complete loss: “This is the worst it’s ever been,” said Jeannette Durán, 41, a community leader.

Sun-stained posters of the late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez decorate the unpainted walls of Durán’s home. She says the community has been forgotten since his death last year and replacement by his hand-picked successor, Nicolás Maduro. “The mayor [of Sucre] and the rest of the opposition simply don’t care about the poor,” she said.

In increasingly dire times, when even running water has become a precious commodity in the capital, authorities in Sucre — an opposition-leaning district — complain that they are paying the price for their politics.

Herlinda Coronado, president of the Autonomous Institute of Sucre Waters (IMAS), the district’s water authority, says the municipality is bearing the brunt of the rationing.

“The [national] government is making more severe cuts in Sucre to protect its base,” said Coronado. With Lagartijo reservoir, which accounts for about half of Sucre’s water, at near-record lows, IMAS is now relying on the national-run waterworks, Hidrocapital, for all of its supply.

It is a limited supply. Turning on the taps in the sprawling shantytowns of Petare has been reduced to an unfortunate game of chance. Generating enough pressure to reach one hillside slum, Coronado says, means that others have to go without water. Further complicating matters, she says, is that Hidrocapital has not complied with its own rationing schedule, leaving IMAS in the dark about when the water will actually be delivered.

“We’re left guessing when trying to send water to the barrios,” she said. “We only turn the valves and distribute water.”

Calls and interview requests placed to Hidrocapital were not returned.

Experts point to political battles and years of poor planning, rather than the dry spell, to explain the water shortage

“There’s an overlap in services,” said Yazenia Frontado, 35, president of the Venezuelan Water Association, an environmental non-governmental organization. She explains that while IMAS administers water from Largartijo, Hidrocapital is in charge of the rest of the capital’s water supply.

“Whereas these bodies should be coordinating, political rivalries leave residents without water,” she said.

While government officials claim rationing will extend only through the summer, Frontado says that shortages are likely to continue for months as the Largartijo reservoir recovers.

“Our lifeline right now is rain, but that won’t make up for the lack of planning,” Frontado said.

Critics are quick to point out that in more than a decade of socialist rule and burgeoning population, the government has not increased the country’s water supply while its infrastructure crumbles.

“This government has announced lots of grand public works but has paid little attention to maintenance,” said Antonio De Liso, 58, a professor of urban planning at the Central University of Venezuela.

Hidrocapital has promised for years to expand Caracas’ water supply with the creation of a new reservoir and aqueduct system. With more than 44 miles of waterways, the Tuy IV system is said to be the largest in the world, and was originally slated for completion in 2005.

“A lot of time has passed, and a lot of money has been spent, but we’ve yet to see any results,” De Liso said.

According to the 2013 Ministry of Environment budget, after nine years of delays and a price tag of almost $1 billion, the ambitious plan is only 31 percent complete. That number differs from the progress claimed in previous year’s budget, which said the project was 67 percent complete.

Officials now estimate the project will be finished in 2016.

Meanwhile, morale remains low in places such as San Isidro. After weeks without service, water recently was turned on, only to be shut off three days later.

“There are some of us that are still waiting to see if the president can fix things, but many have lost their patience,” said Richard Rafael, a 47-year old construction worker who lives in the slum. “This wouldn’t be happening if Hugo Chávez was still around.”