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Is Climate Change Behind the Blackouts in Venezuela?

Thousands of people wait for a chance to receive basic necessities in lines miles long while the sun blazes overhead. In hospitals, children lie on thin pallets arranged in rows on hard tile floors. We have all seen the photographs and footage coming out of Venezuela every day, and the reality of the situation is painfully clear; this is a country in dire straits. Many will appraise the plight of the Venezuelan people and claim that they brought their troubles upon themselves, that what is happening is the result of the failure of socialism. Some will take a different approach and instead blame Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro, presidents who both became dictators and led the country into a downward spiral. Still others will say that if having two such leaders in quick succession were not enough, Juan Guaidó’s controversial installation as interim President of the Republic was more than enough to hurl the country into ever-increasing chaos.

Though arguments may be made to the contrary, in actuality, no country’s state of affairs can be attributed to just one cause. There is always a combination of factors that lead to a particular outcome. In this case, it is evident that much of Venezuela’s fundamental systems and infrastructure have been subjected to decades of chronic mismanagement, corruption and virtually nonexistent upkeep under the respective regimes of Chávez and Maduro. However, outside pressures have also contributed to the strain; difficult foreign relations, particularly with the US, the collapse of oil prices around the world, and something many would not expect - climate change.

Undoubtedly the first question that arises is: if climate change were a player in the events which have unfolded in Venezuela, why hasn’t it been in the news? The answer is that it has - but it has always been written off as an individual incident rather than as a part of a larger pattern. That said, with the way things are in the world today, it is high time that we start paying attention to the larger pattern.

In recent weeks, reports of the biggest blackout in Venezuela’s history flooded headlines all over the world. What little food people have to eat is quickly going bad, and many people, including children, died when necessary hospital life-support systems failed. The country’s transportation networks are completely down, and cut off from access to what is needed for survival, the people have turned to looting and violence. So, why is this happening and how is it related to climate change? Well, the largest hydroelectric facility in Venezuela, the Guri Dam, responsible for producing as much as 75% of the country’s electricity supply, has dried up to near critical levels. For the power-producing turbines to spin, and to avoid damage, it is necessary that the water be at a certain minimum level. With drought almost certainly caused by climate change affecting much of Central and South America, it is unsurprising that the dam has ended up with such low levels of water. Even before the most recent outage, blackouts were commonplace throughout the country; given the water levels in the dam, it has been next to impossible to provide a constant, reliable supply of electricity in most cities.

Additionally, it is crucial that the entire system be serviced regularly, which, under Maduro’s regime, has not been happening. Thus, when reports of a massive fire destroying parts of the power supply chain came in, it was obvious that “re-starting” the power-grid would be extremely difficult. In fact, though this particular outage is the worst the country has ever faced, this is not the first time that Venezuela has had issues like these. During 2010 and 2016, both years where an “El Niño” (part of a climate pattern that occurs when sea-surface waters in the Pacific Ocean become warmer than usual for an extended period of time. This phenomenon can cause significant weather changes in many parts of the world.) was causing droughts and other extreme weather, Venezuela experienced power outages, electricity rationing and water shortages. At the time, the circumstances were quite similar - water levels in the dam were low, and the national electricity company, Corpoelec, was simply unable to meet the demand for power. Water distribution was also a huge problem. The pipelines and systems for water delivery were and are almost completely derelict on top of water scarcity. People often had to source their own water, either by digging illegal private wells, or by finding springs and and rivers, some of which have been blocked off by soldiers, and some of which were so polluted that they were both not potable and unsuitable for use in washing etc.

It is easy to see the extra burden that climate change has placed on a country that was already struggling to function normally. It is equally easy to see how freely we can ignore climate change as a whole until it becomes too pressing to ignore. The rapid and unprecedented changes in both climate and weather patterns that we are experiencing are a wake-up call to the world, a signal that climate change is real, and it is happening right now. We need to acknowledge that fact that climate change is likely affecting every country on Earth without most of them even realizing it. These changes are no longer the sole province of islands in danger of being swallowed by rising sea levels. As we can see in Venezuela, people already fighting for survival have had to bear the additional strain of mankind’s disregard for the planet. Though it may seem a small part of the greater picture in this case, for many others around the world, climate change is the principal, driving factor behind migration to other places. For these people, migration is not a whim; it is the only way to continue living. So, with that in mind, let us start paying attention to the pattern before it’s too late.

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