Caracas – It’s really coming down to the basics in Venezuela, where President Nicolas Maduro announced on Wednesday that all public employees are mandated to take three-day weekends in the next two months in order to save electricity.
The latest effort to ease the nationwide energy crisis comes amid a severe drought hitting the South American nation for the second straight year. In a country where hydropower generates almost 70 percent of electricity, the water level at the largest dam has fallen to near its minimum operating level for weeks now.
As of March, the rain levels had been below average for consecutive 12 months.
“If the water reservoirs are not fill completely again, this situation will repeat again in 2017. This is a problem of poor planning,” said to Fox News Latino Valdemar Andrade, hydrometeorological engineer and professor at the Central University of Venezuela.
“Only one dam has been built in the country since 1999 [the year Hugo Chavez took office]. If the demand keeps growing and the supply is stalled, rationing if the only option,” he explained.
Venezuela has grappled with energy problems for years, and Caracas occasionally shuts down because of citywide losses of power and rural areas see regular rolling blackouts.
It's unclear how the long weekend decree will affect institutions like schools and hospitals. Maduro said the decree applies to all public workers who can be furloughed without affecting production.
Critics ridiculed the move, saying it was an act of desperation and would do little to solve the energy crunch, as workers will simply go home and continue using electricity.
Electricity in this socialist country is virtually free, giving Venezuelans little incentive to conserve.
As for running water, most cities have seen periodic rationing since the start of the year. In Margarita, a traditional beach hot spot for tourists, homes are just receiving power just once every 20 days.
“I spent my vacation in a middle-class residential building and the pool was closed because people were bathing in it with soap and shampoo and someone defecated inside because the apartments didn’t had water,” Francisco Farina, a 27-year-old tourist told FNL over Easter weekend.
Andrade agrees with most experts in that rationing could have been prevented had the government invested in maintenance and in the construction of thermoelectric plants.
According to Andrade, the country needs right now 10 to 15 new water reservoirs because of the growing population.
But drought affects more than energy and water supply. It also activates fires in dry grounds that produced haze, an atmospheric phenomenon where dust, smoke and other dry particles noticeably obscure the sky.
For weeks now, Caracas residents have been complaining about heavy smoke hanging over the city and creating health concerns in people with asthma and other breathing problems – even the most common medicines for these conditions are hard to find due to the acute shortage of basic goods in the country.
“Rain is starting to fall in the south of the country and by the middle of April it should reach its average levels, so hopefully we can avoid blackouts,” said Luis Monterrey, from the government’s National Institute of Meteorology and Hydrology.
He said that the drought is expected to continue until the middle of May, so people in Caracas and other cities will have to keep dealing with the heavy haze and limited water supply.
The AP contributed to this report.
Franz von Bergen is a freelancer reporter living in Caracas.