Infrastructure Incapacity: Caracas

Isabella writes*

One would not expect to see a country ranked in the top 15 worldwide with the most freshwater resources (WorldAtlas, 2018) to also be one where 82% of the population does not continuously receive water (Reporte Nacional, Octubre 2018). Yet this is the case with Venezuela, and many of its issues manifest in the capital: Caracas. Though not the only aspect to blame, the capital’s ailing water infrastructure clearly explains this shocking statistic.

The Tuy System and its subsystems–Tuy I, Tuy II, and Tuy III–bring water to Caracas (“Trasvases en América,” 2023), which is then distributed by the public utility Hidrocapital (McMillan, 2020). Tuy I and Tuy II are both operating at half of their functional capacity (“Dealing with a Water Crisis and a Pandemic in Venezuela – Interactions between Water Security and COVID-19,” 2020), and this lack in productivity is exacerbated by the frequent blackouts the entire country experiences (McMillan, 2020). As Caracas is in a valley, it lacks its own local water sources, hence the Tuy System must pump water from sea level to approximately 2000m in altitude. Caracas is highly dependent on this electric pumping system which requires maintenance to function — and maintenance is lacking.

This absence can be attributed to a lack of institutional capacity (Rendon et al., 2019), which encapsulates corruption, brain drain, and a lack of funding. There is no way for procedures to be effectively monitored, enabling corrupt practices and the deterioration of the water system (Rendon et al., 2019). It is estimated that this malpractice causes losses of around 5400 litres of treated water per second in the distribution systems–this is not only negative for the residents who are unable to receive water, but the water sector themselves, who are losing money in the process (Reporte Nacional, Octubre 2018).

Regarding the actual approaches to improving maintenance, we run into another issue: brain drain. About 15% of the country’s population has fled since 2015, including many of the specialists needed to operate, maintain, and improve the water system (Rendon et al., 2019).

How can the systems be rebuilt without the necessary knowledge? Short answer: they can’t.

To further add complexity to addressing these issues, it must be noted that sanctions make it hard for Caracas to import replacement parts for repairs. Running an inefficient system functioning at half its capacity puts a larger strain on the parts, thus damaging the system more rapidly and therefore requiring even more maintenance–it is a never-ending cycle (McMillan, 2020).

There have been several initiatives to rationalize infrastructure and improve operations, but these have been delayed by budget shortfalls and project design changes. Some infrastructure investment agreements were even made with strategic partner countries, however decreased public oversight has fostered an environment fit for corruption and rushed decisions, ultimately leading to “white elephant infrastructure projects” (McMillan, 2020).

These issues with the water system are indubitably cause for concern, as they ultimately result in further problems: increased waterborne diseases (“Urban Water in Venezuela“), exacerbated effects on the already crippled public health system, and further social disparities, as barrios receive less water than urbanised areas (“Dealing with a Water Crisis and a Pandemic in Venezuela – Interactions between Water Security and COVID-19,” 2020). Therefore it is pertinent that the water systems be corrected–but that is much easier said than done.

Bottom Line: Caracas’s water system is consistently and rapidly depleting due to a lack of institutional capacity. Brain drain, corruption, and failing government systems have led to a near impossible situation to address in the water sector, yet it is most important that it be addressed quickly. More and more citizens lack access to safe, clean water — and there is no solution in sight.

* Please help my Water Scarcity students by commenting on unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data sources, or maybe just saying something nice 🙂

Author: David Zetland

I'm a political-economist from California who now lives in Amsterdam.

2 thoughts on “Infrastructure Incapacity: Caracas”

  1. Hi Isabella!
    I think what you wrote is really interesting and points out one of the problems (I’m assuming there are more) in Caracas. I thought it was especially interesting that they have to pump the water up to 2000 meters in altitude. The lack of maintenance surprised me, even more so because an entire city (the capital city even) relies on this water supply. Though it does make me wonder, are there no rivers that flow into the valley? Is it maybe even possible for the government to artifically create a river from a potential lake somewhere? This is all pure speculation, but why does the Venezuelan government not spend more time and potentially money on this?

    1. Hi Melle, thanks for your comment! I also found it very surprising that they have to resort to getting their water supply from further away. There is a river that runs through Caracas called the River Guaire; however, this river has essentially become the sewers of Caracas. The capital’s wastewater empties into this river, and while there used to be regulations and processes which required the water to be filtered and cleaned before adding it to the river, a lack of maintenance and the political situation have led to a complete neglect of this. So, the river is not a proper source of water for the community; however with the consistent failures of the water distribution systems many have resorted to drinking this polluted water as it is better than no water at all.
      For your second question, the government actually invests major amounts of money into infrastructure; however, it is not an intelligent allocation of funds, leading to even more inefficiency in the systems. Rather than fixing existing infrastructure, the government invests in creating new infrastructure, which either (1) lacks the funds, experts, and maintenance to remain functional or (2) remains an unfinished project which then contributes nothing to the water systems. This is due to economic reasons, and creating relations with construction companies from more powerful countries, and so on. The dysfunctional government is to blame here, as there is no consideration of the people of the country, rather a focus solely on economic benefits and power.

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