In Venezuela, the search for water is a daily struggle
CARACAS — Jakeline Moncada had faith that her household reserves would hold out until Venezuela's water service was restored.
But two nationwide blackouts and now the rationing of electricity have kept the water from flowing to a large swath of this South American country.
After 15 days without a drip from the faucet, the 43-year-old mother of three found herself alongside a creek in Eastern Caracas this week watching her teenage son maneuver clumsily down a muddy bank in jeans and sneakers to draw water their family might use to drink, cook and bathe.
"It's so unfair,'" Moncada said. "We are such a rich country, it's not fair that this is happening.
"My daughter asked me recently, "Why are you crying, mami?'"
First it was money. Then it was food. Then electricity. Now water. For millions of people in this oil-rich nation, the breakdown of basic services has reduced life to a daily struggle to secure fundamental needs - and as shortages spread, many say, it's getting harder. Children are malnourished. Doctors are seeing increases in infectious diseases. Millions have fled the country.
President Nicolás Maduro blames Venezuela's myriad woes on sabotage by the opposition and its U.S. backers, aimed at destabilizing his government. The opposition and U.S. officials blame years of mismanagement and corruption under Maduro and his predecessor, Hugo Chávez.
The sides have been locked in a political stalement since January, when Maduro claimed a second term as president after elections widely viewed as fraudulent and opposition leader Juan Guaidó responded by declaring himself interim president. Guaidó, recognized by the United States and more than 50 other countries as Venezuela's rightful leader, has been leading mass rallies around the country calling for Maduro to step down.
Caught in the middle have been ordinary Venezuelans, across all classes. Analysts say 20 million people - two thirds of the population - have suffered shortages or lost water completely in the last two weeks.
The water scarcity has driven people out of their homes and into the streets in search of any source, potable or not. Adults and children carry empty bottles and buckets down steep slum streets and across dangerous highways to public fountains, muddy streams, urban wells that smell of sewage.
Dr. Maria Eugenia Landaeta heads the infectious disease department at the University Hospital of Caracas, said physicians are seeing surges in diarrhea, typhoid fever and hepatitis A.
The country already is dealing with hunger, malnourishment and shortages of medicines and medical supplies. The longer Venezuelans go without access to clean water, Landeta said, the greater the likelihood of gastrointestinal and bacterial infection.
Landaeta's own hospital has spent months without regular water or power. It has relied on cisterns and generators.
"We had many cases of postpartum infections in women because of terrible hygiene and use of nonsterile water," Landeta said.
Caracas, a city of 2 million, sits in a valley some 3,000 feet above sea level. The public water system relies on a succession of pumps that require massive amounts of energy. Without electricity, the water doesn't flow.
Protests over the lack of water in Caracas and the countryside last weekend drew armed responses from police and pro-government paramilitary groups. Two people were shot Sunday in Central Caracas, according to local media. Reporters and nongovernmental organizations say the government's feared Special Actions Force opened fire on demonstrators in Western Caracas and shot at apartments in neighborhoods that protested.
Maduro condemned the violence and told Venezuelans to steel themselves while the government works to restore the system. Water Administror Evelyn Vasquez told reporters a pipe "explosion" had hindered efforts, but did not provide details.
Maduro tweeted Thursday that the "diabolical puppets" of the "North American empire ... reveal their dark intentions by viciously attacking the basic services of the Venezuelan people."
National Security Advisor John Bolton said it was Maduro who created the problems.
"The only thing preventing Venezuela from the road to economic reconstruction and prosperity is Maduro's corruption, incompetence, and usurpation," he tweeted. "The U.S. supports (Guaidó) and the Venezuelan people on their journey to democracy."
Opposition leaders have been predicting a public utility meltdown for years. Lawmaker Gregorio Graterol, who heads the environmental commission of the opposition-led National Assembly, said politicians warned as early as 2013 that a collapse of the deteriorating hydroelectrical system was imminent, absent serious maintenance. That never happened, he said.
"This crisis is not circumstantial, it is structural," Graterol said. "The causes have been there for a long time; corruption, incompetence . . . and the politicization of the public utility companies in charge."
José De Viana is a former president of Hidrocapital, the state-run water authority. Under normal circumstances, he said, if power from the national grid failed, thermoelectric plants positioned outside Venezuela's cities would fire up as a backup system and keep the water flowing.
"The problem is that 90 percent of the thermoelectric plants are out of service because they haven't been repaired, maintained or are disconnected from the electrical system," De Viana said. "I don't want to imagine the possibility of another blackout . . . if that happens, the problem could take on grave dimensions."
Throngs lined the streets of Caracas' largest slum, Petare, lugging a range of jugs and tubs, some strapped to dollies, pushcarts and bicycles, under a blazing tropical sun to wait in semi-organized chaos for a turn to collect water from a square manhole in the street.
Inés Blanco, 58, walked down from her cinder block home at 7 a.m. to claim a spot in line among scores of neighbors. For five hours, community leaders lowered buckets into the manhole to retrieve fetid water. The crowd didn't seem to notice the smell.
By noon, the well had gone dry, and Blanco had retreated to shade.
In this hillside barrio, home to working-class Venezuelans traditionally loyal to Maduro's socialist government, Blanco has grown accustomed to persistent water shortages. She has mastered recapturing bath water and recycling it for the toilet. She says she never uses that water to cook.
Blanco doesn't blame the opposition for the collapse of Venezuela's infrastructure. But she doesn't blame the government, either.
"We don't blame anyone," she said. "Getting desperate doesn't help anyone."
Neighbors called the hole a pozo - a well. De Viana, the former water utility head, said such operations could be far more hazardous.
"They end up calling these 'springs' or 'wells,' " he said. "But it's mostly sewage water that is not potable and comes from other people's toilets."
Beyond the slums, middle-class Venezuelans with the time and transportation to travel head for streams, rivers and lakes.
At the Sabas Nieves creek in eastern Caracas, Giomar Salazar sat inside a compact car waiting for her son to fill all their water containers.
The 62-year-old homemaker's brow furrowed. The black chihuahua in her lap trembled as she laments how briefly the water haul would last in her household: Two days.
"There's no money. There's no power. There's no water. I feel powerless," Salazar said.
"Everyone is guilty. The opposition and the government. It's all the same. Everyone wants power and the people are worse off for it."
This article was written by Arelis R. Hernández and Mariana Zuñiga for The Washington Post.