Low Water Levels Mean Lights May Go Out in Caracas

Government Shuts Down To Save Electricity During Shortages

Nadia Rodriguez lights candles inside her home while electricity was shut off during state-mandated rationing in the Cana de Azucar neighborhood of Maracay, Venezuela, on March 21, 2016.

Photographer: Meridith Kohut/Bloomberg
  • Water levels critical at main dam providing Caracas's power
  • Key threshold could be reached as early as end of April

Over the past three years, Venezuelans have seen shortages of food, water, toilet paper and medicine. In some areas of the country, electricity has been curtailed.

Now, the lights may go out in the nation’s capital.

A prolonged drought blamed on the El Nino weather system has dropped water levels to a critical threshold at the Guri Dam, the hydroelectric plant that supplies Caracas with most of its electricity. Without rain, there could be rolling blackouts in Venezuela’s largest city by the end of April, said Cesar Cardozo, a retired engineer who managed turbines at the facility in the 1980s.

If so, it could further erode confidence in the three-year-old government of President Nicolas Maduro, according to the Eurasia Group, a global research and consulting firm. In 2015, the country’s economy -- largely dependent on the sale of oil -- contracted by 10 percent and is expected to shrink by an additional 6 percent this year. The currency has lost 98 percent of its value on the black market since Maduro took office in 2013.

‘Social Discontent’

“Guri dam provides 75% of the power generation for Caracas, so the capital -- previously shielded from issues such as outages and rationing due to its political importance -- is extremely vulnerable,” Eurasia said in a March 21 report. More frequent power outages “will increase already high levels of social discontent.”

Water levels at the dam, located in southern Bolivar state, fell to 244.9 meters above sea level on March 29, according to data from Corpoelec, the state-run power company. Below 240 meters, vortexes can form and damage the turbines, said Miguel Lara, a former director of Venezuela’s power grid.

“At the current rhythm, the minimum level to operate the 8 turbines could be reached by April 30th,” Cardozo said in an interview. “That date could be extended into May if more severe rationing is implemented.”

Victor Poleo, a former vice minister of electricity who has been critical of the government, blamed poor planning by the government and a lack of maintenance by Corpoelec at the hydroelectric plant.

“The government was irresponsible in not bringing online" other methods to generate electricity, Poleo said in an interview. “Now we’ve reached the point where the only option will be more rationing.”

Sabotage Blamed

A Corpoelec spokesperson declined comment, saying no one knowledgeable was available to talk because of the reduced hours put in place at government offices to conserve energy. Maduro’s ruling socialist party has in the past blamed the water and electricity shortages on a combination of El Nino and “sabotage” by political foes.

“Protests started at the same time as the electric system was attacked,” the current electricity minister, Luis Motta Dominguez, said on March 12, referring to protests and power outages that occurred away from the capital. “What ... a coincidence, no? A plan was put in place.”

In March, Maduro extended the Easter holiday to 5 days in an effort to conserve electricity, following a similar action by former President Hugo Chavez in 2010, when the when the country faced a similar time of drought. “We’re hoping, God willing, rains will come,” Maduro said in a national address at the time. “We’re reaching a difficult place that we’re trying to manage.”

Cylindrical Basin

It didn’t help. Earlier this year, levels at the dam, which holds back the largest body of fresh water in the country, had been falling by about 15 centimeters a day, according to Jose Aguilar, an independent electricity analyst who studies Venezuela. The basin, though, is cylindrical, growing smaller as it becomes deeper, and the losses are getting larger.

On March 29 and 30, the water fell by 18 centimeters, Aguilar said in a telephone interview.

“This is the first time that Guri has operated at such a low level,” Aguilar said. “Technical studies developed for the dam recommend not operating if water levels are below 240 meters. The word ‘collapse’ comes up in the actual documentation for the plant.”

Increasing power outages could further complicate Maduro’s hold on power as he battles an opposition-controlled congress that has already vowed to oust him.

“The political crisis in Venezuela has been a slow process of erosion,” said Gerardo Reyes, a political analyst and professor at the Catholic University in Caracas, in an interview. “Anything that brings more popular discontent could activate a governance crisis.”

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