Desperate Venezuelans swarm sewage drains in search of water

CARACAS (Reuters) - As Venezuela’s five-day power blackout left homes without water, Lilibeth Tejedor found herself looking for it on Monday in the last place she would have imagined - a drain pipe feeding into a river carrying sewage through the capital, Caracas.

Tejedor, 28, joined dozens of people who had flocked to the Guaire river, which snakes along the bottom of a sharp ravine alongside Caracas’ main highway, to fill up a four-gallon (15 liter) plastic container.

Unlike the fetid liquid flowing through the Guaire river, the water emerging from the pipe was at least clear. Those who gathered to collect it said the water had been released by local authorities from reservoirs.

They added, however, that it was being carried through unsanitary pipes and should only be used to flush toilets or scrub floors.

“I’ve never even seen this before. It’s horrible, horrible,” said Tejedor, preparing to carry the container on a small hand cart back to her home in the neighborhood of San Agustin.

Tejedor, who works at a computer technology store, has a two-year-old daughter and takes care of two nieces.

“The ones that are most affected are the children, because how do you tell a child that there’s no water?” she said.

The lack of water has become one of the most excruciating side effects of the nationwide blackout that the government of President Nicolas Maduro has blamed on U.S.-backed sabotage but his critics call the product of corruption and incompetence.

The blackout has worsened the situation of a country already facing a hyperinflationary economic collapse that has spurred a mass migration and turned once-basic items like corn flour and toilet paper into unaffordable luxuries for most people.

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After five days without electricity to pump water, Venezuelans from working-class neighborhoods to upscale apartment towers are complaining of increasingly infrequent showers, unwashed dishes, and stinking toilets.

Caracas needs 20,000 liters of water per second from nearby watersheds to maintain service, said Jose de Viana, an engineer who ran Caracas’ municipal water authority in the 1990s.

Last week that had fallen to around 13,000 and since Thursday’s blackout it has halted completely, he said.


Many worry about the spread of disease. The lack of water compounds the inability to buy soap due to soaring prices or chronic shortages.

Opposition leader Juan Guaido, who in January invoked the constitution to assume the interim presidency after declaring Maduro’s re-election a fraud, led the country’s legislature on Monday in declaring a “state of alarm” over power problems.

Maduro is facing an unprecedented political crisis and the United States, which backs Guaido, has levied crippling oil industry sanctions meant to starve the government of its sources of foreign revenue.

Up the road from where Tejedor stood, hundreds of angry residents blocked the highway on Monday to demand that local authorities deliver a 20,000-liter cistern to supply water to the neighborhood of La Charneca.

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“They’re killing us with hunger and thirst,” said Gladys Martinez, 52, a homemaker, who joined the demonstration that blocked two lanes of the highway, snarling traffic and drawing dozens of police and National Guard troops to the scene.

Along the riverbed, teenagers and children accompanied their parents to help carry water. As two children began stomping in the sewage, a woman warned them: “That water’s dirty! Don’t start playing around because remember there’s no medicine.”

Water trucks, a common sight in Caracas, are increasingly struggling to fill up because state-run reservoirs are running low.

On the northern edge of Caracas, where the city meets the El Avila national park, hundreds of people lined up to collect water from mountain streams.

Lack of water, along with the power outage, has become a major concern for hospitals - which have for years suffered from lack of equipment and supplies.

Jose Velez, 58, a security guard who also arrived at the Guaire to collect water, said the blackout had made life unbearable and wished the country’s politicians would agree on how to resolve the situation.

“I’m not interested in these politicians, they never agree on anything,” said Velez. “I want my life to go back to normal.”

Reporting by Brian Ellsworth and Vivian Sequera; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Rosalba O’Brien