The brick shack on the outskirts of Venezuela’s capital is crowded with tubs, jugs and buckets. The water they hold must last the family of eight for a week — but it’s not enough for frequent washing or flushing, so the kitchen is filled with greasy pots and the house smells of stale urine.
And none of the water is treated, making diarrhea and vomit a regular occurrence.
“We practically live in the bathroom,” said the mother of the family, Yarelis Pinto. Her pregnant daughter, Yarielys, sat nearby, pale and listless, recovering from her latest bout of diarrhea just one month away from childbirth.
In Venezuela, a crumbling economy and the collapse of even basic state infrastructure means water comes irregularly — and drinking it is an increasingly risky gamble. Venezuela’s current rate of infant mortality from diarrhea, which is closely related to water quality, is six times higher than 15 years ago, according to the World Health Organization.
But the government stopped releasing official public health data years ago.
So The New York Times commissioned researchers from the Universidad Central de Venezuela to recreate the water quality study they had conducted regularly for the water utility in Caracas from 1992 until 1999.
The scientists found that about a million residents were exposed to contaminated supplies. This puts them at risk of contracting waterborne viruses that could sicken them and threatens the lives of children and the most vulnerable.
“This is a potential epidemic,” said Jose María De Viana, who headed Caracas’s water utility, Hidrocapital, until 1999. “It’s very serious. It’s unacceptable.”
In the latest study, 40 samples were taken from the capital’s main water systems and tested for bacteria and for chlorine, which keeps water safe. The study also tested alternative water sources used by city residents during supply outages.
One third of the samples did not meet national norms.
This should have required Hidrocapital to issue a sanitation alert, according to the utility’s own internal regulations. But Venezuela’s government has not issued any alerts at least since President Nicolas Maduro’s Socialist Party took power 20 years ago.
“The biggest health risk that we see there right now is water — water and sanitation,” the head of the International Federation of the Red Cross, Francesco Rocca, told foreign reporters this week, referring to Venezuela.
Venezuela’s stagnant economy went into a tailspin in 2014, when a collapse in the nation’s oil export revenues exposed the failure of Mr. Maduro’s disastrous policies of price and currency controls. The economy has imploded since, with Venezuela losing two thirds of its gross domestic product and at least 10 percent of its population.
Spokesmen for Hidrocapital, Venezuela’s water ministry and the ministry of information did not respond to questions about drinking water quality in the capital.
The risks posed by poor water quality are particularly threatening for a population weakened by food and medication shortages. But the problem cuts across the capital’s social, political and geographic divide, affecting wealthy gated communities and shantytowns, areas that support the opposition and those loyal to the government.
In Terrazas del Avila, a middle-class neighborhood whose water the study found was tainted with fecal bacteria, residents buy jugs from private companies to cook or drink, said Juan Carlos Castro, a doctor and community leader there.
“This is not drinking water,” he said of their tap water. “It’s a public health hazard.”
But buying water is a luxury in the neighboring shantytowns, where many survive on Venezuela’s minimum wage of $8 a month.
During the regular blackouts and water outages, Aleyda Sabino’s family in the Carapita shantytown walk to a nearby creek to get water. She has a kidney disease and is under doctor’s order to drink a lot of water every day. She tries to, although drinking from the creek often results in fever, vomiting and diarrhea.
“I feel I will get sick if I drink the water and sick if I don’t,” she said. Boiling the water requires cooking gas — another luxury that is unaffordable to many.
Overall, the new study showed a significant decline in the city’s water quality over the last two decades.
Built with oil proceeds by the previous governments, the Caracas public water system was once an engineering feat, pumping 5 million gallons of water per second up thousands feet to the city’s mountain valley through complex aqueducts and hundreds of miles of pipelines.
The system was part of a broad investment in public infrastructure. The city’s piped cooking gas, its glitzy metro sprinkled with avant-garde art, its elevated motorways and its skyscrapers of public housing were examples of modernity in the neglected and volatile continent.
But while the rest of South America made dramatic improvements in drinking water access in the past two decades, Venezuela’s advances were instead hollowed out by underinvestment, mismanagement and six straight years of a spiraling economy under Mr. Maduro.
Outside Caracas, the breakdown of the water infrastructure is even more profound, leaving millions without regular supplies and forcing communities to dig wells and rely on untreated rivers.
The collapse of water services has accelerated in the past two years, according to surveys conducted by universities and nongovernmental organizations. During that time, power cuts, pipeline outages, chemicals shortages and the mass exodus of qualified staff shook the state water utilities to their core.
Now, the Inter-American Development Bank estimates only 30 percent of Venezuelans have regular access to safe drinking water, compared to 60 percent in 2000.
“There hasn’t been a deterioration of this magnitude and duration in the region in recent history,” said Sergio Campos, the development bank’s chief water expert.
The water study commissioned by The Times showed the main water supply system, which provides about 60 percent of the capital’s water, was especially compromised. More than half of the samples taken from the main water system had insufficient chlorine; almost two thirds of the samples had levels of bacteria that exceeded regulations.
Venezuelan authorities have not published any public health data since at least 2017. But survey-based evidence collected by local health advocacy groups shows a correlation between the country’s declining water supply and the rise of waterborne diseases.
The incidence of hepatitis A, a liver infection, rose to 150 times above normal in Terrazas del Avila, the middle-class neighborhood, following a prolonged water outage in March, said Dr. Castro.
In the nearby slums, procuring, cleansing and storing enough drinkable water is a daily struggle — and a high-risk game of chance.
In March when a major blackout left many without water, hundreds of people took their water jugs to the sewage-filled Guaire River. In the Petare shantytown in the east, residents ambush water trucks to force them to unload in their neighborhoods.
In the San Isidro shantytown, water flowed for two days in September for the first time in six months. It came out dark with sludge that accumulated in the empty pipes.
The study found excessive bacteria in most of the sampled alternative water sources used by Caracas residents, such as mountainside springs, water sold in shops and water cisterns.
Ms. Pinto, the mother of five who lives in the San Isidro shantytown, bought water she thought was safer until 2017. She can no longer afford to, as she has no income and survives on the food her ex-husband brings for their children.
When Ms. Pinto’s tubs run dry, her family trudges to a nearby creek with jugs to fill. More fortunate neighbors pay for access to a homemade system made up of miles of interconnected hoses that carry water from a nearby hill.
“When I drink the water, I feel repulsion,” said Ms. Pinto.
Her five children are often laid low by vomiting and diarrhea, and the frequent bouts of illness make it hard for the adults to hold jobs. Only one of the four adults in the house worked, earning $8 a month cleaning floors.
But they have no choice, she said. “We have to consume what we have.”
The study’s researchers say the high bacteria levels in the samples are most likely caused by insufficient chlorine and the unstable supply. These problems have been caused by chronic lack of maintenance, mismanagement and the economic downturn, they say.
The economic crisis has shut down Venezuela’s only chlorine plant for months at a time, said a manager at the plant, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals. And frequent electrical outages allow bacteria to accumulate in empty pipes, say the utility’s managers.
Several of the study’s worst results came out better when new samples were collected and tested again several weeks later, implying Caracas’s water quality varies greatly according to the chlorine availability and pipeline throughput on a particular day.
Electrical breakdowns and lack of maintenance have gradually stripped the city’s complex water system to a minimum. Water pumps, treatment plants, chlorine injection stations and entire reservoirs have been abandoned as the state ran out of money and skilled workers, according to seven former and current Hidrocapital managers who requested anonymity for fear of reprisals.
Dorka López until 2015 managed a water treatment plant that serves about 220,000 people in the capital’s satellite city of La Guaira. The plant’s five-stage purification process was reduced to just one — chlorine injection — after a mudslide damaged the plant in 2013, she said. No attempt was made to repair it.
Gradually, the plant stopped even testing the quality of the water it was supposed to be treating, she said. The staff brought their own drinking water to work.
“We were no longer treating the water, just sending it out,” she said.
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