Economic and infrastructure problems hamper the availability of water for basic hygiene measure
According to the World Health Organization (WHO) office of Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH), hand-washing is the No. 1 COVID-19 prevention strategy. That makes it difficult to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic in Venezuela, where only 18% of citizens have reliable access to safe water. But the problem is hardly unique in South America, with both Brazil and Chile in the throes of concurrent water and COVID-19 crises. Zooming out, the deadly combination of water shortage and pandemic is also seen in other parts of the world, from developing countries in Africa to parts of the United States, and all of the crises have one thing in common: The poor are hit hardest.
Vulnerable Water Infrastructure
Isolation is impossible for more than 7,000 Venezuelan migrants who live in crowded temporary shelters and under movement restrictions in La Guajira, just across the border in Colombia. More than 80% of such migrants have nowhere to wash their hands, and 5,000 of them are elderly.
Within Venezuela, there is little water to do the basic hand-washing to make lockdown measures effective. During its many years of turmoil and economic collapse, Venezuela has frequently struggled to provide basic services like electricity and water, and in 2019, an estimated 20 million Venezuelans either had no access to water or faced water shortage. Now, Venezuelans carry water by hand or dig wells and construct pipe networks, sometimes in their own homes and neighborhoods.
Although Venezuela is one of the world’s 15 most water-rich countries, the high altitude of most urban areas makes pumping from reservoirs necessary. But the nation’s water infrastructure has fallen into disrepair over the past 20 years. Many blame scant investment, corruption, or the governance model of the nationalized Hidrocapital company.
Caracas, the capital city of 7 million, depends on three treatment and pumping systems, comprised of 147 pumping stations and 14 treatment plants. But two of those three systems are plagued by power outages that leave them operating at only 50% capacity. From 1999 to 2019, Caracas went from receiving about 20,000 L/s of drinking water to 14,000. A fourth system has been in the works since 1982.
These systemic problems have made it very hard for Venezuelans to cover even the basics of hygiene to slow the spread. Long lines of low-income people are frequently seen at creek banks or at tanker trucks, and queues are public gatherings where the virus could spread.
Venezuelan Hospitals and Health Care Workers
In a 2020 poll, 64% of health care workers in Venezuela’s poorly equipped public hospitals reported shortages of clean water, and 32% said they had none. Some use buckets to collect and store water to wash up if the taps happen to stop running, and of course no water means hospital toilets will not work, with obvious risk to health within the building. Additionally, lack of water can hamper the success of surgeries and treatments, and already underpaid health care workers often cannot take showers when they go home, which puts their families at an elevated COVID-19 risk.
In Venezuela, the COVID-19 pandemic has deepened an already serious political and economic crisis, and many doubt rehabilitation of existing infrastructure and a restructuring of Hidrocapital’s governance model would be successful unless accompanied by a major policy shift.
Although the government recently touted its acquisition of 1,000 Chinese tanker trucks to deliver water, the appearance of tanker trucks is generally seen as evidence of catastrophe rather than as a solution.