CARACAS, Venezuela – Venezuela is at risk of a devastating power collapse as drought pushes water levels precariously low in the country's biggest hydroelectric dam, posing a serious political threat for President Hugo Chavez.
Chavez on Friday said his government is determined to keep Guri Dam from falling to a critical level where the turbines start to fail in the next several months. He has also imposed rationing measures that include penalty fees for energy overuse, shorter workdays for many public employees and reduced hours for shopping malls.
The entire South American country of 28 million people depends to a large degree on the massive Guri Dam, which holds back the Caroni River in southeastern Bolivar state. It supplies 73 percent of the country's electricity by feeding the massive Guri hydroelectric plant — the world's third-largest in power output — along with two other smaller plants.
Chavez said that the dam's water level is now about 33 feet below where it was last year, and if it falls 82 feet more before the dry season ends, "we would be at a standstill."
Chavez said that would force the government to suspend the generation of about 5,000 megawatts of power — causing blackouts for large swaths of Venezuela.
"We can't allow the water to reach this level," Chavez said. He said officials are aiming to prevent it by diminishing power generation at Guri and decreasing the flow of water that moves through the turbines.
Government officials say their rationing plan should help the country reach May, when seasonal rains are predicted to return. But even Chavez concedes the situation is serious. His past efforts to solve the problem have included sending cloud-seeding planes to produce rain with the help of Cuba.
An internal report by the state company Electricidad del Caroni, which oversees the dam, was recently published in the Venezuelan press and predicted that if water levels keep falling at current rates, the dam could reach a critical level in about four months.
Experts say the amount of water reaching the turbines could eventually decrease to such an extent that they would no longer feed the power grid.
"We'd be in a situation where we'd have to halt the country, the entire economy," said Victor Poleo, an oil economics professor at Venezuela's Central University and a former official in Chavez's Energy Ministry. Without power from Guri, he said, the country's existing gas- and oil-fired power plants would be able to cover only about 20 percent of the demand — producing widespread and sustained outages.
Chavez, seeking to avoid increased blackouts and the public anger that would accompany them, is taking a range of actions to try to close the electricity gap. He said repairs on two large thermoelectric plants should yield about 700 megawatts in the near future, and the government is also installing about a dozen smaller 12-megawatt plants elsewhere that he said should be ready later this month.
For now, his government has determined its best hope of averting disaster is to reduce electricity usage through rationing. Measures include penalty fees for businesses and other big customers that don't meet 20-percent reduction targets. Billboards are required to switch to efficient lighting.
Many malls have been forced to reduce hours, with most of their stores operating from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Long lines have formed outside some shopping centers in the mornings, with people waiting to reach offices inside.
"Usually this is easy at this hour. Look at this disaster," said Oswaldo Dominguez, 67, who was waiting to pay a bill.
Lawyer Jose Cisneros, 52, waiting to buy a new cell phone, added, "I've lost half the day." He blamed the government, saying a lack of planning has left the electrical system in shambles.
After widespread complaints, the government loosened its mall shutdown order, allowing some businesses such as medical offices and supermarkets to open at regular hours.
The government has also partially shut down state-run steel and aluminum plants.
Chavez said the government will offer incentives for families that use less electricity. He also announced Friday that many public employees will have shorter workdays — from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. — except those in offices that tend to the public.
The rationing has some concerned. Andres Perez, president of the industrial chamber in central Carabobo state, said he doubts Guri Dam will be permitted to fail, but said many factories are bracing for the possibility of extended power outages — which could contribute to shortages of some goods.
Some parts of the country have already been enduring regular blackouts for months, as demand has outstripped the electrical supply.
Poleo said Guri Dam's three hydroelectric plants are now producing about 14,000 megawatts instead of the normal capacity of 15,300 megawatts.
"If that dam reaches its critical point, filling it is really a two- to three-year job," he said.
Chavez has blamed the electricity predicament on the El Nino weather phenomenon in the Pacific Ocean, along with global warming. But critics blame the government, saying investments in infrastructure haven't kept up in spite of Venezuela's bountiful oil earnings.
Poleo said investments have been hobbled by a lack of planning, waste and corruption, and that based on his research only about 25 percent to 30 percent of the funds approved for infrastructure upgrades have reached their intended uses.
The government's electricity minister, Angel Rodriguez, was not available to respond to the accusations.
Rodriguez was quoted by the Venezuelan newspaper El Mundo earlier in the week as saying that the government has invested heavily in upgrades, and that many are long-term projects rather than immediate solutions. The government says it has spent about $16.5 billion since 2002 in the electrical sector to meet rising consumer demand.