If there's one group that has benefited from Venezuela's economic collapse, it's the country's military, which has been handed control over much of the country's remaining industry as the collapse has intensified. Venezuela's army, about 160,000 strong, controls the mineral-rich Arco Minero del Orinoco, and some of its top officers are also serving as executives of Venezuela's state-run oil company.
And as the collapse of social services has caused water supplies to dwindle, the military has recently hijacked what spigots remain, transforming access to water into a luxury that most Venezuelans can't afford. Many of the pipes and reservoirs have fallen into disarray - or seen their supplies drastically diminished - the military is stepping in to take charge of the "equitable distribution" of what little remains. As part of the government's socialist policy program, the cost of water is supposed to be subsidized - at least in theory. But with the state-owned water utility, known as Hidrocapital, has effectively abdicated its responsibilities, the military is increasingly stepping in, commandeering trucks and vans used by private individuals who have tried to step in and service parts of the capital, according to a Bloomberg report.
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.
Rigoberto Sanchez, who runs a water tanker that ferries water from the El Paraiso water-filling station in Caracas to an array of customers in the city, says his No. 1 business hazard is being intercepted by the military.
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, compares 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.
"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."
President Nicolas Maduro last month appointed Evelyn Vasquez, a Hidrocapital official, as the head of a new water ministry. But Norberto Bausson, who ran the utility back in the 1990s, said that "institutional incompetence" is risking a "disaster" should Venezuela have a exceptionally dry year. Already, the utility sometimes cuts service int he capital for as long as two days at a stretch.
People in Caracas, who on average only have access to water for 30 minutes every morning and night, frequently rush home from work and social gatherings to shower or collect water, racing against the clock before supplies are once again shut off. And while the situation in Caracas is dire, circumstances are even worse for poor Venezuelans living in the more remote provinces. To wit, a report from charity Caritas recently revealed that only 27% of poor Venezuelans have continuous access to safe drinking water. 65% have access for three days a week or less, while in the state of Miranda, not a single poor family has access for more than three days a week.
These shortages have made gathering the day's supply of water a tedious part of the morning routine for many families.
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 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.
The lack of access to clean water, as horrifying as it sounds in Latin America's socialist paradise, is perhaps even more galling because of the $500 million in loans the country has received over the past decade from the Latin American Development Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank to upgrade its water-treatment infrastructure. Unfortunately for the people of Venezuela, none of it appears to have helped.
While water shortages threaten the population with malnutrition and other diseases as people are forced to drink unclean or non-potable water just to survive, Bloomberg recently pointed out another shocking development: The cost of a single cup of coffee in Caracas has eclipsed one million bolivars (equal to about 29 US cents) That's about one-third of the average monthly wage in the country, which has slipped to roughly $1 thanks to the government's frantic money printing.