March 9 (Reuters) - Venezuela’s worsening electricity crisis, caused in part by a drought linked to the El Nino climate phenomenon, puts its $300 billion economy at risk of contraction and may cut the OPEC country’s oil product exports. For an analysis, click [ID:nN09199491]
Following are some key facts about the crisis:
* Venezuela is South America’s top oil exporter, but is suffering from major power shortages. The crisis was triggered by a long drought that is emptying reservoirs that provide 70 percent of electricity. The underlying cause is a 6 percent annual increase in power consumption this decade that has not been matched by investment in new power plants.
President Hugo Chavez blames the weather and previous governments, but polls show that most Venezuelans are angry at how his 11-year-old administration has managed the crisis. [ID:nN11179612]
* Venezuela risks a catastrophic meltdown in its electricity system if rains fail again and water levels at the vast Guri hydroelectric dam keep falling at their current rate of about a meter (3 feet) a week. The government says some of Guri’s turbines could stop turning as soon as May unless there is a sharp drop in consumption or alternative power supplies come on line.
Chavez set a tough target to install nearly 6 GW of gas and oil-fired power plants this year — more than Venezuela has installed since the former tank soldier took office in 1999. A rapid increase in thermal plants will affect fuel exports.
* Perhaps reluctant to bear the political cost of electricity rationing in the OPEC nation, which is one of the top energy consumers in the Americas and used to plentiful and cheap power, Chavez was slow to react to the crisis. In October, as the patchy rainy season drew to a close, he called for Venezuela’s beauty-conscious citizens to take three-minute showers, then cut the work-day for government employees to 6 hours. [ID:nN21517176] He also launched a Cuban-led program to artificially seed clouds.
* In January, the government announced 14 hours of rationing per week nationwide, but Chavez quickly called off the measure in Caracas after a furious reaction from his supporters during a chaotic day of cuts that left people stranded in elevators, hospitals without power and dangerous neighborhoods without street lighting. [ID:nN14111470]. After consulting with Cuban, Brazilian and Argentine experts, Venezuela now requires industry to reduce usage by 20 percent or face cuts.
* This year’s El Nino — an intermittent climate cycle characterized by warming in the central and eastern waters of the Pacific Ocean — has interrupted normal weather patterns in several world regions, and meteorologists link Venezuela’s drought to the phenomenon. The drought has uncovered a village that was flooded to build one reservoir and normally lush hills around Caracas are tinder-box dry. Farmers last year lost much of the corn crop.
* Other Latin American countries have suffered similar energy crises in recent decades. Industrial production contracted in Brazil in 2001 after the government forced a 20 percent cut in consumption to prevent widespread blackouts. This year, Ecuador also has had to ration energy because of the drought. (Reporting by Frank Jack Daniel and Joshua Schneyer; Editing by Walter Bagley)