June 4, 2020 / 3:55 PM / a month ago

For Venezuelans, a key obstacle for handwashing during pandemic - no running water

CARACAS (Reuters) - After going two months without running water at her home on the outskirts of Venezuela’s capital Caracas, Mara Loyo stores it whenever it becomes available, in pots, pans, and even tablespoons.

A child helps a man to fill plastic containers with water from an unknown source in the low-income neighbourhood of Petare amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Caracas, Venezuela June 3, 2020. REUTERS/Manaure Quintero

Venezuelans have long suffered deteriorating public services amid a six-year economic collapse. Now, shortages of running water throughout the crisis-stricken South American country are worsening even as the spread of the coronavirus pandemic heightens the importance of hygiene.

Caracas residents like Aura Perez’s three children have taken to traveling daily to a nearby mountainside to fill large containers with water that falls naturally from the mountain to the street.

“I’m anxious about how we are going to cook, how we will wash the bathrooms, the plates, the pots,” said Perez, a 57-year-old retired secretary. “I am angry that there is no water, but I feel exhausted.”

Loyo, a 47-year-old dermatologist, and fellow residents in the Terrazas de Guaicoco neighborhood eventually pressured the government into delivering a water truck on May 26 by cutting off a motorway during a protest.

She knows this water offers just temporary relief, and that even when it’s there, it is of questionable quality.

“I’m aware that I am bathing in mud,” Loyo said.

‘NOT SERIOUS SOLUTIONS’

After years of underinvestment and mismanagement under socialist President Nicolas Maduro, Venezuelans have grown accustomed to coping with frequent power blackouts, cooking-gas shortages, and even long lines for gasoline in this OPEC nation that boasts the world’s largest crude reserves.

Even as state television announcements emphasized the importance of handwashing to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, water shortages worsened in the capital region.

Protests over the scarcity of water, cooking gas, or electricity made up over half of Venezuela’s 716 demonstrations in April, according to the nonprofit Venezuelan Observatory of Social Conflict.

A recent study by the opposition-held National Assembly found that 73% of Venezuelans receive an irregular supply of water and 19.6% did not receive any running water in the past seven days.

Just 7.3% said they receive clean water continuously.

Maduro’s government has blamed the recent shortages on an alleged act of sabotage at a reservoir that feeds Caracas. To address the problem, the government in mid-May imported some 1,000 water trucks with the capacity of some 30,000 liters each from China.

Norberto Bausson, a former vice-president of the state-run company Hidrocapital responsible for supplying Caracas with water, called water trucks a “prehistoric service” that could provide nowhere near the quality of a functioning pipe-based supply network.

“These are not serious solutions,” Bausson said.

He said recent rains after a dry start to 2020 were unlikely to help because the root of the problem was in leaky tubes and malfunctioning pumps due to lack of maintenance and replacement parts.

Venezuela’s information ministry did not respond to a request for comment.

HOSPITALS AFFECTED

Venezuela - which has relatively few foreign visitors - has not been hit as hard as other Latin American countries like Brazil and Ecuador as the pandemic has spread across the region. It has reported 1,952 cases and 20 deaths so far from COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus.

But doctors and activists have raised concerns about the ability of its crumbling healthcare system to cope with any outbreak.

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A survey of 16 health centers in Caracas conducted by Mauro Zambrano, an opposition-linked health care union leader, found that eight lacked water. The figure was published in a late May joint report by Human Rights Watch and the John Hopkins University’s Centers for Public Health and Human Rights and for Humanitarian Health.

Bausson, who is a member of a committee of policy advisers to the opposition, said it would take $600 million in investments to achieve a stable water supply within two years.

With the collapse in its exports of crude oil, the main source of government revenue, the state lacks funds for such investments.

Reporting by Vivian Sequera and Johnny Carvajal in Caracas; Writing by Luc Cohen; Editing by Bernadette Baum

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