Over the past years I’ve quarreled over toilet paper, stopped eating arepas so that there was more flour for my brother and mother when it was really hard to find, done so many bread lines that I’m entitled to a professional certification in the art of bread line making, jury rigged my stuff so that it keeps working, and yet, water shortages and rations are the one thing that I can’t be at peace with.
In my pursuit to manage, tolerate, and coexist with the growing water shortage problem, I’ve unwillingly let the whole situation take a hold of my life, to the point that the rations dictate when I sleep, when I wake up, when I shower, when I use the toilet, do the dishes, when to cook and what, et al.
Suffice to say, it’s not what one would consider normal, then again, Venezuela’s definition of normal has been warped and twisted by the ongoing collapse of the country.
In contrast, the scarce hours/days per week that we do have running water are the moments that I have a semblance of relative normalcy in our lives—if you exclude everything else that is, and even then, the water dictates the path, as that limited timespan of water has to be well invested in laundry, cleaning the house, and in other significant chores that require it.
I certainly am no stranger to water shortages, I’ve danced with this devil ever since I was a kid. Back in Maracaibo there were periods of drought (like the infamous El Niño) that translated into interruptions of the service, and I can remember at least one hilarious instance of a disruption of water in my dad’s house back in Punto Fijo because I know exactly what movie I was watching when I had to use the toilet that afternoon (Mortal Kombat). Those situations were atypical but never permanent, unlike the one we’re facing in this, post-collapse socialist Venezuela.
It’s been about five years since the situation started to get bad in this area of Caracas, and it’s gotten worse with each year. This whole thing started with 5 days of water / 2 days without it pattern—now the pattern is basically the opposite, barely two (three if we’re lucky) days of water, and five without it, sometimes it’s mere hours of water per week (like in the first week of July).
So, without further ado, I want to describe how my brother and I deal with this growing problem in our lives. A never-ending cycle that repeats itself every week, over and over and over again.
The looping routine
While this is a small apartment building the tanks can only hold so much water, so heavy rationing is required most of the time, even more so nowadays with the highly erratic water schedule we’re under.
The people that live in this building have agreed to open the tanks for two hours per day, one in the morning, and one in the evening. This is the fundamental core of our water rations, and its carried out every day that we do not have running water (which is now most of the week).
This schedule also assumes that we’re under ‘normal’ rationing circumstances and that the tanks managed to fill up before water was, otherwise the rations must be cut down to 45 minutes, 30 in more extreme cases, nobody likes it, but it has to be done to stretch the tanks as much as possible until the brief return of running water
Whether you like it or now, that’s how it goes.
Recently, there was some drama and controversy between certain neighbors (of which I had no part of), since then, the water responsibilities have begun to be cycled on a weekly basis. Each week, a different floor takes the reins of the water rations; basically, every four weeks I am in charge of the evening water rations—look at me, I’m the water ration now.
As I don’t have access to the area where the lower tank is at, the responsibility to check its status (and to see if water is finally back or if it was abruptly cut) falls onto other people.
We used to have a total of seven 5-gallon water bottles, of which now only five remain (one broke in an accident one day as we returned from a place that refilled them, and one is in possession of a family member that needed it). The filtered water (refilled to us by a family member) is exclusively reserved for drinking, brushing our teeth, and cooking (also for brewing coffee), not taking any chances with tap water, I know my country too well, and if I am to give foreigners one advice here is to never, ever drink the tap water, under no circumstances.
When it comes to washing food (such as vegetables) and our hands/face, my brother and I gathered a large array of repurposed Pepsi/Coke bottles and we keep them filled with water. I’d say it’s a rather handy (albeit space consuming) solution. Ran out of water in the bathroom’s buckets to wash your hands? There you go, two litters at a time. If we need to do some emergency cleaning then we take from the pile.
While the “Coke/Pepsi array” is way more than enough for extended days without water, it is not sufficient (nor convenient) for bathing and whatnot—we rely on the daily water rations for that. There is also the added problem that after a few days, the sediments in the water become very visible—such is the quality of the water we have here.
A comfortable rotating balance between freshly stocked water and ‘clean’ one is something we’re still trying to achieve.
Toilets? We have buckets for that. I re-routed our air conditioner drain pipes so that they fill two buckets overnight, which is enough for a flush. We do have a dedicated supply for additional flushes in the smallest bathroom should we need them.
I’ve been giving serious thought about getting a water filter, but then again, I’m trying to flee this country with my brother, so I’m torn at the idea, but I honestly think that it would be a good investment regardless, if not, there’s always the good old fashioned boiled water.
The water ration hour
As the clock nears 08:00 p.m. the anticipation begins to build up. My brother turns the bathroom lights on, opens the sink, and goes back to his bedroom whilst rapidly tapping his right leg, due to the way his mind works he does get very anxious, no matter how much I tell him to take it easy, because after five years of living like this its just not worth it..
The clock hits 08:00 p.m., and after a few seconds we hear the sound of water coursing through the empty pipes that run across our house’s walls. “El agua,” he says to me. Sometimes I try to get ahead of him and play a joke by saying “You know what I’m about to say,” before he can warn me about the start of the water ration. He’s started to occasionally reciprocate the joke.
Anyways, that’s when we know it’s time for action.
We only have one hour of water to shower, dishes, restock, and clean whatever needs cleaning. Our water heater is a very small one, and unless you don’t mind taking a cold shower, it only does enough water for one person at a time. We’re both creatures of routine so we have a shared dynamic that most of the time goes like this:
As soon as the water ration begins my brother immediately gets ready to take a shower while I begin to do the dishes—which I start to do as soon as the air in the pipes clear and the muddy and dirty water runs past.
My main task is to do as many dishes as possible so as to minimize my brother’s workload. Once he’s all clean and dressed we swap—he finishes the dishes and refills the bottles while I take a shower. If there’s nothing left to do or clean on that evening then we’re done, if not then you best make sure you do it all before the hour is over.
This cycle repeats every night that there’s no water (provided the building has enough water for a ration). It has been years of this, and after the 500th time it is safe to say that we’ve become exceedingly good at it.
The ephemeral bliss
Under a ‘regular’ schedule, running water should return to this area of Caracas sometime during Wednesday. As things have gotten worse, it can either be Thursday, Friday, or even at a later day.
As soon as it starts to return here the word is rapidly spread through the community’s chat groups, the same is done when it gets cut so buildings can get ready and brace for the inevitable.
These announcements are followed by a tense moment of intense anticipation, as we wait for the water to reach our building
And then eventually…
That’s the sound of bliss.
When we begin to celebrate the return of something that shouldn’t have been gone in the first place—that’s when you realize how much they’ve broken us. There we are, with our metaphorical legs broken, celebrating that they’re letting us borrow a pair of broken clutches for a few hours/days.
Due to the way our building’s tanks work, we can’t just open the valves right away. We have to wait until the tanks have sufficiently recovered before opening the valves. The brief period of time is when I have some flexibility in my daily routine, as I’m not restricted by the one hour rations.
I can take longer showers at a later hour at night (which in turn helps me sleep better-ish), I can worry about cooking at a different time, or even cook something at night without worry of leaving a huge pile of uncleaned dishes. I get to clean the whole house and do our laundry.
You know, regular stuff.
The constant dread
Just because water is temporarily back doesn’t mean you get to relax. You’re being borrowed a pair of broken crutches, don’t forget that. You really think they’re going to keep their word and give you the hours/days of water they promised you? Hah!
There’s always a chance that water will straight up be cut in advance, it happened once again as I was writing this article, and part of the reason I had to delay over the past week was because of the abrupt cuts of water that were done ahead of schedule.
And it’s happened time and time again, and it will continue to happen.
People constantly make rounds checking the water’s tank, keep an eye on the chat groups for any heads up. We all live with that permanent anxiety and fear that water might be cut at any moment, and it’s pretty stressful.
Every hour you don’t make use of it you might regret later on. I used to simply clean the house on Saturdays, now try to do it on the very first day that the water is back, not taking any chances. Just to give you a fresh example: Water came back on the evening of the 9th of July, I spent the whole night cleaning and doing laundry, the next day? It was cut way ahead of schedule.
The shard of normalcy
Saturdays are somewhat of a chill day for me when it comes to water, provided that the cycle of water behaved in a ‘regular’ pattern. Since its technically the last hours of running water per week, it’s my ‘me time’. I take a long shower, shave my beard, swap my bedsheets with a fresh set (I only have two and they’re very worn out), and do the final laundry load of the week so I can go to bed as fresh and relaxed as possible, stress has taken a hold of me lately so it hasn’t been as effective, but still. My brother has the same routine, but he prefers to do it on Fridays.
20 GOTO 10
Water gets cut off on Sunday mornings, that’s a constant, and then the loop begins anew, the never ending cycle of water rations and managing stockpiles, the evening shower/dishes power hour.
Knowing myself, there’s a chance I overthink and exacerbate the severity of the shortages, but still, after five years of this routine, it starts to wear you down.
The cruel reality
While I’m here complaining and rambling about my water woes, I can’t help but be mindful of the fact that I have it relatively easier than the majority of my fellow countrymen.
Places like Punto Fijo only receive running water for a few days every three months or so. One curious anecdote my father shared with me goes to show how bad it’s over there. Some time ago, a community kidnapped the guy that was in charge of opening and closing the valves for that area before he could close them down. He got locked in a room with TV, bathroom, being fed and treated nicely during his forced stay.
He was kept there while that community enjoyed a few extra days of water, that community released him once they were ready and stocked.
Another notable demonstration of how desperate and inhumane the water shortages have become happened in Caracas, where people have begun digging to tap into a literal goldmine of water.
En las faldas del cerro que bordea el norte de Caracas, los vecinos hallaron lo que denominan como una mina de agua, que les ha permitido crear un ingenioso sistema de abastecimiento independiente del Estado 🇻🇪💧— Sputnik Mundo (@SputnikMundo) June 18, 2020
Cortesía de @MagdaGibelli pic.twitter.com/IuoAMY8XCH
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic doesn’t help the situation either, it makes the worsening water problem even more evident to us. It’s not that we don’t have water, it’s just that the regime has left the infrastructure in such a state of disrepair and mismanagement that they can’t pump enough water to cover all of Caracas at once, let alone the rest of the country. A recent explosion at a pumping station has just made matters worse for this city.
Like with almost everything here, you can brute force your way out of this problem with money—foreign money. Hiring a cistern truck to refill your building/community’s tanks is not something everyone can afford, especially not after we’ve become the poorest country in the region.
I don’t see how there could possibly be any quick solution to this problem that worsens with each passing day, its gonna take a while and the regime doesn’t seem to have the intentions of fixing it—quite the contrary, they can weaponize people’s need of water for their own benefit.
Until the next water ration,