Well drilling thrives as Caracas water supply flounders

CARACAS (AFP) – Alfredo Araya used to dig wells on farms or out in the countryside, but due to a failing water supply he said demand for his services has recently exploded in Venezuela’s capital Caracas.

Using a huge drill to perforate the soil, Araya struck the underground aquifer below an apartment bloc in Caracas’ comfortable Los Palos Grandes neighbourhood so that residents now have access to water that jets out of a hose.

Drilling down 90 metres to find a water supply can cost USD20,000 in a country where the minimum wage – including a government food stamp – is worth just over USD2 a month.

But in Caracas – a city of seven million people – neighbours have been pooling resources and “paying together” to fund wells, said Araya, a 68-year-old engineer.

Dalila Escalona put USD400 of her savings into one such fund.

“We’re making a great sacrifice… the collection hasn’t been easy,” the 59-year-old architect said.

Workers are pictured during the water well drilling at the Chacao neighbourhood in Caracas. PHOTO: AFP

“Although we’re all committed, we’re not all able to pay.”

After five months of negotiations via a WhatsApp group, her building’s residents were finally able to pool the necessary money to build the well.

It’s a scenario being repeated all over Caracas and the numbers are growing exponentially, Araya said.

Crisis-struck Venezuela has struggled through three years of hyperinflation and been in recession for seven years, with a water supply that has suffered badly.

The independent Public Services Observatory estimates that almost nine out of every 10 Venezuelans suffers from interruptions in their water supply, with some communities going months without receiving a drop.

The reserve that supplies Caracas has seen output decrease by 40 per cent in the last 20 years.

More than 55 per cent of Venezuela’s 30 million people have to store water in pots and bottles, according to the observatory, while 18.5 per cent pay for water to be delivered by tankers.

Caracas is sitting on “a huge water deposit” that is supplied by rain and streams that run from the El Avila mountain to the north of the capital, Jose Maria de Viana, the former president of the state water company Hidrocapital, told AFP.

Several parts of the capital were supplied by this reserve in the 1950s and 60s but wells were gradually replaced by water mains completed in 1980, de Viana said.

Reservoirs located miles away from the capital are used by Hidrocapital to supply Caracas.

Water was provided almost free of charge under late former president Hugo Chavez who came to power in 1999 but that took huge public investment and the pumping stations have fallen into disrepair under his successor Nicolas Maduro.

Whereas 20 years ago Caracas received 20,000 litres of water a second, it now receives only 12,000.

Altogether, the factors have created fierce competition between drilling companies in the capital.

Requests have multiplied during the coronavirus pandemic as many people began to see “the necessity” of having a well, Araya said.

But it’s not all smooth sailing. These companies need state permits to operate, which can take time.

And when drilling on public land, security services can ask for “contributions”, said Araya.

The bribes, he added, are simply “a toll you have to pay”.

Some local councils, like the opposition-controlled Chacao municipality in Caracas, have drilled wells for free in the areas worst-hit by shortages.

It has built five wells, with another two under construction, a project hugely appreciated by residents such as Julio Blanco, 45, who lives in the poor El Bucaral neighbourhood.

He spent almost three months without access to running water and at times went to El Avila with a wheelbarrow to fill up drums.

“When water arrives here we all jump. It’s emotional,” said Blanco.

Living without water, he said, “is traumatic”.