CARACAS: Yusmary spends as much as half her weekly wage on water. Isora must go to the black market to get gas cylinders so she can cook. Rodrigo, weary of blackouts, bought portable generators for his home and business. Public utilities offer erratic service in Venezuela, and citizens pay steeply to make up for the shortcomings.

When power shuts off and water and gas supplies run dry, people hustle around chaotic private networks to find supplies. “People have to resolve and go about their daily lives,” Jesus Vasquez, director of Monitor Ciudad, an NGO that tracks water, electricity and gas in Caracas and four states in this country of 30 million inhabitants, told AFP. Protests over the situation are frequent.


Empty water pipes

A shout rings out in La Jota, part of the La Vega district of Caracas: “The water is back on!” Everyone scurries to fill buckets and jugs to ensure family water supplies. Yusmary Gomez, a 36-year-old mother, says it is not uncommon that water comes on only once every two weeks. “Last year, we didn’t get even a drop of water for three and a half months.”

At her home, she has a plastic cistern that holds 800 liters (210 gallons) given to her during an election campaign. City water, when it arrives, is often yellowish, so she buys 20-liter jugs from the store where she works, for drinking and cooking. Each pay day, her boss deducts the cost. Filling two containers costs one dollar. “I get $30 a week and I’ve been paid $15,” Yusmary tells AFP. Monitor Ciudad estimates that city residents on average receive water for 60 of the 168 hours in any given week.

For middle class residents, it is common to pay $70 for a delivery from a tanker to fill private cisterns. In more affluent areas, neighbors sometimes spend up to $20,000 to drill private wells and share the output. The average salary in the country, according to private estimates, is US$150 per month. The minimum wage is less than $5. Using a mobile app, communities can notify the government of President Nicolas Maduro, and in theory it deploys units to replenish water lines, pave roads or recondition schools. Maduro blames US sanctions on his government for the crisis in services, exacerbated by disinvestment and allegations of corruption.


Gas for medicine

Water isn’t the only scarcity in La Jota. Isora Bazan complains of erratic delivery of domestic gas cylinders for cooking. To cope with the delays, she must turn to the black market. “I stop buying medicine to go buy gas,” the 61-year-old retiree tells AFP. On one avenue, dealers sell cylinders for between $10 and $20. Isora receives a monthly pension of less than US$5. Only 17 percent of the population has piped gas, according to Monitor Ciudad.


Private generators

Felicinda Mendoza, 74, saw her refrigerator fail from frequent blackouts. “The power goes out a lot ... Yesterday I took out the meat, the chicken, the little bit of food I had. Everything was rotten,” she says. Blackouts are especially problematic in the provinces, where they can last for hours. “If we don’t find a way to solve these things, we will die of heart attacks,” Rodrigo Crespo, a 35-year-old businessman, tells AFP. He bought two small generators, one for his home and one for his business in Los Puertos de Altagracia, a small town near Maracaibo in the west of the country. Each generator cost $350. Running them costs $100 a month in fuel.


No water, no school

The collapse in the public health and educational systems also vexes people. The four-year-old daughter of Yusmary often misses classes when her state-run preschool shuts its doors for lack of water. “They send us a text message: There’s no water so there’s no school,” she says. Since the coronavirus pandemic, it has become commonplace for students in public schools to have classes only two or three days a week as teachers retire due to low salaries. – AFP