It is dusk as we fly into Ciudad Guyana, Venezuela. The horizon is lit up in a brilliant pink and orange glow, and bright, small flames are scattered across the darkening landscape. For the moment these distant gas flares are the only indication of Venezuela’s petroleum industry. As we descend over the Caroni River, the industry’s mark becomes unmistakable – carved into the Caroni’s banks are towering industrial plants and the bright lights of a grid at work.
My husband and I have come to Venezuela to visit his family. We arrive at a time of particular tension across the country. Venezuela, the country with the world’s largest oil reserve, also has the greatest rate of inflation, widespread food shortages, and water shortages in the capital of Caracas. A great portion of the population supports impeaching President Nicolás Maduro.
Amongst all this, an energy crisis is unfolding.
Guri Dam in Crisis
Before reaching Ciudad Guyana, the Caroni River flows into Simon Bolivar Central Hydroelectric power station, known as the Guri Dam. Completed in 1986, Guri is one of the largest dams in the world, and the third-largest power plant in the world. In recent months, its reservoir has been at a historic low, dropping to a mere three meters above the critical depth of 240 meters above sea level (m.a.s.l.). Below that point, the dam can only function at a limited capacity, cutting off over half of the nation’s electricity supply.
Explanations for this crisis vary depending on whom you listen to. The government has consistently said that the drought caused by El Niño and climate change led to the drastic drop in Guri’s reservoir levels. A similar crisis occurred with Guri during the El Niño of 2010.
However many Venezuelans say political corruption and mismanagement of the dam (and other energy resources) are really behind the crisis. Jose Aguilar, an independent electricity analyst, said that the country’s state-run power company, Corpoelec, should have turned to thermoelectric energy to help meet the country’s energy demands during the drought, giving Guri’s reservoir time to fill. However, the president of The College of Engineers of Venezuela (CIV), Winston Cabas, stated that the thermoelectric plants have not been maintained, substantially reducing their output capacity. There are reports of missing money that was designated for the construction of new thermoelectric plants, and newly-constructed plants that don’t function. Sources claim that without sufficient thermoelectric power, Guri has been operating at greater than its recommended capacity for several years in order to supply most of the country’s energy needs.
Government officials encourage people to save electricity when they can, such as by turning off air conditioners when they’re not needed. Power outages began to occur early this year. As Holy Week approached (March 19 to 27), Maduro extended the non-working public holidays for the entire week, stating that it would cut electricity demand and help keep the reservoir from dropping closer to 240 m.a.s.l. On April 21st, Maduro announced a plan to cut electricity for four hours a day across much of the country. This measure was planned to last forty days, or until water levels stabilized in the Guri reservoir.
For the people of Venezuela, living with this energy crisis means planning their days around the blackouts and hoping for the rains. May did bring rain as expected, and near the end of the month the blackouts were reduced to three hours a day. Residents and businesses can check when the blackouts are scheduled, as the times alternate between morning, afternoon, and into the night. Even with a schedule, however, one can never be sure when the lights might go out. Early one morning as we cooked breakfast with an electric stove, the power suddenly went off – nearly two hours ahead of schedule. Ten minutes later it came back on. In Ciudad Guyana, some family members went twelve hours without electricity.
This crisis with Guri Dam makes apparent the many vulnerabilities hydroelectric dams face. Aside from the problems that can originate from the construction of large dams, a hydroelectric dam is only as viable as its context allows it to be. Guri was designed to withstand three years of historic drought, yet a confluence of factors made it unable to last six months of a periodic drought. If indeed political corruption and poor decision-making within Corpoelec caused this energy crisis, these types of problems are not unique to Venezuela. Many large hydroelectric projects are proposed in developing countries where corruption and mismanagement can be rampant and deep-seated.
Further, new hydroelectric dams are constructed using past climatic data. Yet climate change brings with it uncertainties in new climatic patterns, making historical records potentially unreliable sources for planning hydroelectric capacity. In some regions where developers are proposing large dams, droughts that occurred for only a short periods in the past could become long-term realities.
The beginning of June marked forty days of the blackout measure. However Guri’s levels haven’t stabilized, and the blackouts continue. When the rains do come, you’re likely to hear the word “embalse” (“reservoir”) on the street, on buses and in the supermarkets; it has become a household word as Venezuelans wait for their reservoir to fill.
Katherine Brousseau was the Coordinator of the 2012 International Day of Action for Rivers. She studied Conservation and Resource Studies, with a focus on international rural development, at UC Berkeley.