To arrive at the El Paraiso water-filling station in Caracas by sunrise, Rigoberto Sanchez wakes before 4 a.m. Hours later, his tanker is in a slow-moving line with a dozen others. Only two of the 10 pumps work and Sanchez will have time for a couple of deliveries if he’s lucky. If he’s luckier, the military won’t intercept him.
“They hijack our trucks, just like that,” said Sanchez, leaning on a rusty railing. “Once that happens, you’re in their hands, you have to drive the truck wherever they want you to.”
Venezuela’s military has come to oversee the desperate and lucrative water trade as reservoirs empty, broken pipes flood neighborhoods and overwhelmed personnel walk out. Seven major access points in the capital of 5.5 million people are now run by soldiers or police, who also took total control of all public and private water trucks. Unofficially, soldiers direct where drivers deliver – and make them give away the goods at favored addresses.
President Nicolas Maduro’s autocratic regime has handed lucrative industries to the 160,000-member military as the economic collapse gathers speed, from the mineral-rich region of the Arco Minero del Orinoco to top slots at the state oil producer to increasingly precious control over food and water. Maduro has promoted hundreds of officers since he became president in 2013 – there are some 1,000 active and retired generals, admirals and officers in public office, and military officers hold 9 of 32 cabinet posts.
Last week, the president named Evelyn Vasquez, an official of state utility Hidrocapital, as the head of a new water ministry, a move he said would help achieve access and care standards laid out in the United Nations’s Millennium Development Goals. The country was supposed to have reached that landmark by 2015, but the crisis hasn’t respected bureaucratic timetables.
“The water sector has been completely taken because of a government that believes the military can grant order to things,” said Norberto Bausson, who was the head of Hidrocapital in the 1990s. “If on top of this institutional incompetence, you add a dry year, then the consequences are tremendous.”
Thus has necessity become a luxury in Venezuela.
Theoretically, water in the socialist nation is subsidized, costing pennies a month. But the pipes in Caracas haven’t been renewed in three decades and Bausson said that repair crews have dwindled to about 40 from 400 back when he was in charge. Most pumps that bring water from reservoirs outside Caracas are only partly working. Two auxiliary dams, meant to guarantee supply for 15 days in emergencies, are critically low or empty.
Hidrocapital sometimes entirely cuts service for as long as 48 hours. Most people in Caracas get 30 minutes of water mornings and nights, igniting a mad rush to leave work or social gatherings to shower, wash and clean.
An unpublished report from the Caritas charity, which serves the poorest areas in four states, found that in April only 27 percent of families had continuous access to safe water from state supplies. About 65 percent had access less than three days a week. In Miranda state, no poor families at all had water more often that.
Those who want more must pay. Private tankers like Sanchez had been filling up and reselling water for many times its worth. Then, military personnel were deployed to the capital’s water points in May in an emergency supply plan.
The El Paraiso station is blocks from El Guaire, a filthy river carrying sewer water that the late President Hugo Chavez pledged to clean enough for a swim back in 2005. Even before the sun heats the muddy waters, the scent is putrid. It is untreated. Unpotable and drinking water must come from elsewhere.
Depending on driving distance from the water point, Sanchez charges about 18 million bolivars to fill an average residential building’s tank. For bigger jobs he can charge up to 50 million. While that’s just $17 at black-market exchange rates, compare that to a month’s minimum wage of about $1.
Recently, Sanchez has a new expense: Military officers have begun commandeering trucks, according to a dozen water providers in Caracas. Drivers are forced to go wherever officers tell them without the expectation of pay. Sometimes they’re led to government buildings, others to military residences or private homes. In other cases, soldiers simply block access to springs and wells. At a filling station near a large park in Eastern Caracas, a lock had been placed on the water lever.
Kariandre Rincon, a press official for Venezuela’s Defense Ministry, declined to comment on the military’s recent encroachment on the country’s water resources and trucks.
When water makes a rare appearance at Odalys Duque’s two-bedroom home, it’s usually at dawn and wakes her with a rattle at the bottom of a plastic drum. She then has to rush to align buckets, bins and pots in hopes of gathering every drop for her husband and two small children.
In mid-June they’d had none for three weeks. Instead, they survived on what was left in a roof tank and what her husband could carry in paint buckets strapped on his shoulders from a well at the bottom of the sprawling hillside slum of Petare.
“It’s an ugly situation that keeps getting uglier,” said Duque, 32. “The little one cries when I pour the bucket of cold water on him, but at least we still get something. My family that lives higher up the mountain hasn’t had water in months.”
The Latin American Development Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank together loaned Venezuela more than half a billion dollars in the past 10 years for water projects. They included the renovation of some of the country’s largest treatment centers and treatment of El Guaire, where protesters last year waded into its filthy waters to escape tear gas during massive anti-government rallies. None of it helped.
Mosquito-spread diseases like dengue fever and Zika have multiplied as the insects lay eggs on people’s buckets or rain barrels, according to Carlos Walter, head of a Central University social-science institute. Lack of personal hygiene promotes skin diseases like scabies, he said.
“Access to water is even more important than access to food for the population’s nutritional well-being,” said Susana Raffalli, an expert on nutrition in countries under crisis. “Unsafe or contaminated water leads to diseases that alter the biological structure needed for nutrition or even worsen malnutrition.”
The situation governs much of Duque’s life. For drinking water, she waits for particles to settle at the bottom of plastic buckets and then pours the surface water into a pot where she boils it at least half an hour. For laundry, she’ll wash several loads of clothes and linens in the same dirty water.
Elderly people and children from neighborhoods even higher up the mountain knock on her door asking for water. “I always give them something, even if it’s just a glass,” she said.