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A Giant Septic Tank is Swallowing Maracay and Valencia

The amount invested over 13 years in Lake Valencia in north central Venezuela, could have been used by the Chavista regime to build 18 new hospitals like the Cardiológico Infantil Latinoamericano de Caracas, (Latin American Children’s Cardiology Hospital) or a fairway like the Panama Canal. But against the flow of the 385 million US dollars dumped in the water, the basin has become the largest septic tank in Latin America. This is one of the most serious environmental problems in the region, not only because of the pollution but also because of the social cost of 8,000 families who are at risk of losing their homes and even drowning in sewage. Before addressing this situation, the regime of Nicolás Maduro prefers to help the victims of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, and leave the neighbors abandoned to the eternal Venezuelan improvisation.

17/09/2017 10:45:23

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The first lines of Guillermo Saavedra's poem are the leitmotiv of this story: "Calm is the water of misfortune." Calm was the standing water of Lake Valencia and the misfortune has descended with a definite certainty on the families that at a bad time decided to buy homes in the neighborhoods of its basins. The people in La Punta and Mata Redonda know it. Back in the 1980s these areas presumed to be middle-class developments and today are two large open-air sewers. Spacious houses surrounded by standing water, some abandoned and others invaded. In La Punta, the area closest to the lake, there are only 12 houses left from the original 500. The others were demolished after their owners were compensated.

Before arriving there, it is necessary to pay attention to the details that announce that, in a few years, La Punta and Mata Redonda and ten other developments and neighborhoods will be the Venezuelan version of Atlantis, the submerged continent. A row of lamp posts gets lost in the distance. They appear smaller, sink as they get far away. They are 10 meters (32.80 ft) high, but submerged in water, they look much smaller. There is no inclined street or broad plain that explains that. Lake Valencia, in addition to avenues, hectares of estates and entire communities, has also swallowed the lighting.

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In the north-central region of Venezuela is the second most important lake in the country, Lake Valencia (also known as Lake Los Tacariguas), sharing its 3,140 square kilometers (1,212.36 square miles) with the states of Aragua and Carabobo. In the first case, the city of Maracay (capital of the state of Aragua) is the closest to the lakeside deposit. The entire residential area at the south of the city is accustomed to see the same and desolate image. The sunken light posts remind us how far Lake Valencia has advanced.

The same happens in Brisas del Lago, where there are only two out of 15 streets of the development. The corners of the streets are flooded and only 10 houses are still occupied by their owners. In Aguacatal II, calle Paraíso is the last street that remains in the area since 2012 because until then, there were still remnants of three more neighborhoods that kept those streets away from the lake. The story repeats in Paraparal, where an asphalt wall was built to separate the community from the now flooded scrubland and where over 10 years ago, La Vaquera neighborhood (420 houses) existed, which also disappeared under water. Also, Las Vegas 1 is a virtually deserted place since 18 families were evacuated due to the advance of the water, and now live in Olinto Mora Márquez school, a "temporary shelter" in which they have been for 7 years, and where the water is already half a meter (19.68 in) high in one of the classrooms that was used as a room until July.

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In Mata Redonda and La Punta there is no submerged public lighting that reminds us the rise of the lake level, but a 1.2 km (0.74 mi) long embankment located 4.40 m (14.43 ft) above their houses, so that people do not to forget that there is that great landlocked water reservoir above. Lake Valencia is a closed (endorheic) basin, which receives 360 million cubic meters of wastewater each year, e.g. sewage from residential and industrial areas of the cities of Maracay, Valencia, and towns like Mariara , San Joaquin, Los Guayos, and Güigüe, in addition to the 22 rivers that flow into the lake, and the seasonal rains.

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Re-emerging News

While Nicolás Maduro's regime offered aid to the islands and cities devastated by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma in the Caribbean and the United States, Venezuelans remembered the old tragedy of these areas adjacent to the stinking lake. Fernando Klein can confirm it, who under the doorjamb of the main entrance of his house —located on calle A, manzana 3, six meters (19.68 ft) below the level of the lake— looks like the last of the Mohicans of La Punta. His is one of the twelve houses still standing. His house (273 m2/ 2938.55 ft2) was built at a height of 408 m (1338.58 ft) above sea level, and currently the lake is 414.10 m (1358.59 ft) above sea level. He continues there with his wife and daughter, awaiting compensation from the Government, which they are entitled to by judgment of the Supreme Court of Justice (TSJ). The question is, if the Supreme Court has never ruled against the government and it is a prestigious ally in the design of a model that guarantees chavismo a perpetual rule, why has the regime not honored the decision?

The court proceedings of this case began in November 1999, a few months after the commander-in-chief Hugo Chávez came to power. The lawsuit filed by the group of owners of both developments claimed the failure of the Ministry of the Environment to discharge his duty to carry out the drainage of Lake Valencia. The favorable ruling could also be seen as a form of revenge against the condemned governing class preceding the Chavismo  from 1958 to 1998. At that time, the expansion of the lake was already affecting the locals. Klein recalls that when they bought that house in 1979, the lake was about 10 kilometers (6.21 mi) away. In 20 years, the lake knocked at their doors and in 2005, it was already 2 m (6.56 ft) above La Punta and at the same level as Mata Redonda.

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The Government's solution to this emergency situation —expressed by decreeing and declaring "potential areas of high risk"— was to build a 1200-m (3937-ft) embankment, where only a section of
4 m (13.12 ft) wide of the wall is concrete (the lower part extends for 21.5 m (70.53 ft)), built to protect a pumping plant that dumps a thick flow of wastewater to the lake. It was erected like some sort of a dam to stop the advance of water, 412 m (1351.71 ft) above sea level. It was a solution designed to last for three years. It will be twelve years in October.

That concrete wall serves as a reference to the 8 thousand families of at least seven areas of southern Maracay that are at risk of being covered by water, since the level of the lake already is above their houses. In 2012, they add 2.40 m (7.87 ft) to the wall, remaining at a height of 414.40 m (47.24 ft) above sea level. In August 2017, in the face of an evident flood they began to add 1 additional meter (3.28 ft) to the wall. If water cannot pass by the wall with the waves, it progressively passes below, through the earth, or through the sewer pipes and drains.

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Pending Compensation

The 512 family owners that remain in La Punta and Mata Redonda have not been evacuated despite the risk decreed on them. Since 2006, when the TSJ finally issued the decision of the lawsuit filed in 1999, delivering a constitutional guarantee to protect the rights of the owners of La Punta and Mata Redonda, they must have been compensated. That is provided for in judgment 1632, ratified in 2007 with judgment 1752, but not all owners have been compensated, 512 out of 1043 still wait.

Klein and Marianelly Nieves, who owns a house in Mata Redonda, recall that many left for compensation, but others decided to appeal to a settlement. Each owner accepted the terms agreed upon with the Government, which were different from the provisions of the judgment, e.g. house appraisal and payment. It included from houses in the secondary market to apartments of the government housing program “Gran Misión Vivienda.” Others, like them, were left behind without an answer. It has been like this since 2010.

In 2015, the TSJ issued a third judgment, where it was agreed once again on the execution of 2006 and 2007 judgments, and ordered to pay the payments pending from the 2011 settlement. The decision is in the hands of a collection court in Maracay, but the owners have not been compensated yet. "We already exhausted all legal resources, according to the book. What is happening is an inhuman omission, a human drama that goes beyond legal. There are areas that are worse today than La Punta and Mata Redonda ever were in 1999, when the lawsuit was filed," says lawyer José Vicente Haro, counsel for 65 families of La Punta and Mata Redonda.

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Those who remain in these communities are certain that there was corrupt activity in the resolution of hundreds of cases. Most know who ended up paying extra money to experts, public officials, or intermediaries to obtain compensation, expedited check issuance, or overstated appraised value.

Fernando Klein took care of the proceedings for his compensation in 2008. He refused to pay the person in charge of his case, and when he received the long-awaited check, there was an error in the name of the recipient. There was no way to fix it. They had already seen a house that they could buy in another distant area with the compensation and a credit, but everything collapsed due to that error.

"This was going to be my house for life and now we have four meters (13.12 ft) of water above."

"If they had not filled that lake, we would live happily here. This was going to be my home for life and now we have four feet (13.12 ft) of water above. We were swindled and the Government has not done anything. They are waiting for nature to do the dirty work and has treated us terribly," says Marianelly Nieves. She affirms it after two years of receiving drinking water only twice a week, having no street lighting, no garbage collection, patrolling, dredging of Madre Vieja river, or maintenance. It is as if no one lives there, hence, there are no utilities to provide. It is as if they play tired and wait for the owners to make the decision to leave without being compensated to save their lives before the risk of drowning.

"They know that any money invested here would be lost, because we are in flood areas. That is why they left Mata Redonda, La Punta and all the communities that are at high risk for the lake," says Mildred Rojas, inhabitant of La Esmeralda, another area flooded with sewage. In her opinion, the problem of Lake Valencia has become the petty cash of all local and regional rulers, a cleaning budget item where many charge and nothing is cleaned.

While in La Punta and Mata Redonda the compensations stopped, in Aguacatal, Paraparal and Brisas del Lago the governorship of Aragua decided to declare these areas, since 2012, as "shelters in the open," a paradox. Their houses flooded with sewage are the safe place where the Government orders them to stay. "They say that there are no shelters, no homes, no money, nothing," repeated the neighbors of Paraparal. In late August, civil protection officials went to the area to offer a survival course on how to evacuate the area and what to do in case of floods. The same happens in Aguacatal II. Doctors stay away from the area  fearing a sewage related infection.

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It is also a contradiction that the inhabitants of south Maracay live with their homes, streets and avenues flooded with sewage that you can see, smell and feel, and at the same time, they endure a water rationing that only lets them collect a few liters a week, a kind of "rationing" to try not to affect the levels of the lake, which continues  increasing.

Even the Yuma tourist center in the state of Carabobo, where Hugo Chávez held one of his Sunday programs in April 2005, and promised to clean Lake Valencia in five years, is now under water.

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An Old Problem

"This is not new. It dates back to over 30 years ago," says engineer Jesús Castillo, director of “Agua Sin Fronteras” (Water Without Borders)  organization, when explaining what is happening with this body of water, which since 1999 has the neighbors of Maracay and Valencia in a state of emergency.

"We have always turned our backs on the lake, because instead of regarding it as a great economic, agricultural and tourist opportunity for the region, we use it as a big toilet that receives all the wastewater of the cities and industries, " he concludes, apologizing for the comparison.

The basin of Lake Valencia gave a turn from the decade of the '80s, when the urban and industrial expansion was promoted. Much of its land intended for agriculture was developed with Government permits. The region grew, became one of the economic and industrial development areas and attracted thousands of Venezuelans, who decided to make their living in these central cities, at just 2 hours from Caracas. At some point, they represented a 13% of the inhabitants of Venezuela, recalls Castillo.

But like any development process, it required parallel work to mitigate its impact on the basin. That is the debt. The lake turned into an environmental, health, economic and social problem, consisting of at least 12 residential areas drowned in its water, seven communities of Maracay (around 8 thousand families) in high risk, two judgments of the Supreme Court of Justice disobeyed , six emergency decrees ignored, 8000 productive hectares under water, and 14 cleaning works planned and financed, but not executed. Those who live in the vicinity of the lake basin are engaged in a disproportionate struggle: they are alone against nature and against the Government’s indifference.

Only in Latin America

In the late '70s, Lake Valencia or Los Tacariguas had a height of 401 m (1315.62 ft) above sea level. Based on this reference, the Venezuelan Government began to grant permits to build houses on lands by the basin, south of Maracay, while the Ministry of the Environment set in 1978 the maximum security or stabilization level of the lake at 408 m (1338.58 ft) above sea level, recalls Germán Benedetti, a mechanical engineer and former legislator of the state of Carabobo. At that time it was already known that the water of the lake could reach that level.

The housing developments planned by the Government began to be executed on land above the 408-m (1338.58-ft) level, as is the case of La Punta development, located at that height, and Mata Redonda development, built at 410 m (1345.14 ft) above sea level. But there were also other constructions that disregarded that level and built houses in lower lands.

In total, 10000 liters per second reach the water reservoir and combine with the course of another 21 rivers.

To meet the needs of the population that began to grow along with the urban and industrial development of the lake basin, from 1975 to 1978, the building of the Central Regional System I and II took place, an aqueduct necessary to provide drinking water to the central region of Venezuela, which like every aqueduct also entails the generation of wastewater. That is how all those sewers began to be drained into the lake.

According to Benedetti's calculations, this aqueduct dumps about 8500 l/second of wastewater into the lake since then. In 1978 the course of the stream of river Cabriales was taken to the reservoir and ended up as wastewater with an additional 1500 liters per second. In total, 10,000 liters per second arrive at the water reservoir and combine with the stream of another 21 rivers, rain discharges, and another important volume of about 16 m3(565.03 ft3)/second from the Pao-Cachinche reservoir located in the state of Cojedes, also in central Venezuela. Its purity ceased to be an attribute and its natural balance, when using its waters for the irrigation of the agricultural hectares of the basin, began to alter.

"What is happening with Lake Valencia is one of the most serious environmental problems in Latin America, both because of the contamination of its waters and the social cost of increasing its level," said Castillo of “Aguas Sin Fronteras.”

After receiving much and discharging nothing or very little, the height of the Lake of Valencia progressively increased. In 1999, it reached 408 m (1338.58 ft) above sea level for the first time since 1894, says Benedetti —taking as a reference the book by Alberto Bockh, El desecamiento del Lago de Valencia (The Drying of Lake Valencia), and began to register the first displacements of families affected by the flood of the lake, especially in popular areas and invaded lands, without further reaction from local and regional governments.

The water of the lake began to cover streets and avenues, the sewage - at times - were returned by the pipes of the houses, filtered through the floor and sprouted through the sewers. A rarity that became routine, a routine associated with the rainy season (in Venezuela is usually from May to November), and a recurrent scenario that has worsened along with the increase in lake levels in the last 18 years.

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"When it rains, I cannot flush the toilet because it returns," says Betty Carrero, who lives in the La Esmeralda area. Merly García reports the same from Aguacatal II. "All this is wastewater, plain and simple shit," says Judit Bandes in Paraparal, one of the most affected areas this year by rains, overflowing sewers and rising lake levels.

The area has been flooded for almost two months. On September 5, a neighbor died. The 36-year old man was riding a horse helping to take household equipment and furniture from a house. The animal stepped on a live wire underwater and both died electrocuted. "This is sewage with a little of lagoon water," Mrs. Bandes explained.

The effect of Lake Valencia in Paraparal has been so significant that in 2013 a wall was built to prevent the lake from affecting them again, as they lived a critical moment in 2012. "That year, they told us 'All Paraparal must leave' because the sewage had already mixed with the clean water in the pipes. Look where we are now,” says Belén Arcano. The wall, built by state oil company PDVSA, was not finished.

"This is not about losing your stuff or your ID card in this water, but losing the identity for living here."

This community is in Monseñor Feliciano parish, an area that has lost a third of its territory to the advance of the lake, including 420 homes in La Vaquera neighborhood, five schools and three health centers, says engineer Jesús Castillo. In addition to La Vaquera, the residents of Paraparal have witnessed the disappearance of other nearby communities: Platanal, Las Casitas, Armando Reverón, and five blocks of Paraparal. They were evacuated between 2005 and 2010, and the land was taken by the water hyacinth brought by the lake.

"I have lived here for 36 years and it pains me to lose my identity because some rulers do not want to do anything. Because this is not about losing your stuff or your ID card in this water, but losing the identity for living here," says Bandes, a bachelor of nursing with graduate studies, who could buy her house in the '80s, when she was working at an outpatient clinic. Paraparal was planned by the National Housing Institute (Inavi).

Millions Spent but not Evident

There is an explanation for the wastewater returning through the drainage, sprouting from the sewers and being mixed with the drinking water and the lake.

In 1995, a technical study was conducted by Caltec-Otepi-CDM consortium, for the Ministry of the Environment with the support of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), which explained "the most advisable options to control the levels of Lake Valencia."

Among the three options presented was the construction of a tunnel through the Henry Pittier National Park (north of Maracay), and open a mouth of the lake to the Caribbean Sea. It was not accepted due to the environmental impact that would cause to the park, Castillo and Benedetti explain.

Only three out of 17 water treatment plants have been built.

The most accepted option, which has been in progress for over 20 years, is the "West Alternative": the construction of 17 water treatment plants in Lake Valencia basin. Only three were completed between 1995 and 1997, Los Guayos, La Mariposa and Taiguayguai, the first two in the state of Carabobo and the third one in Aragua.

The Los Guayos plant stopped working in 2016 and is currently dismantled because its equipment has been stolen, and flooded by the lake of Valencia and the water hyacinth. La Mariposa, aimed to treat the lake water to transfer 5600 l/second to the Pao-Cachinche reservoir (one of the lake's few releases), stopped working in August, said Marino Azcárate, president of the Engineers  Association of the state of Aragua, and the Taiguayguay plant is abandoned. There is no way to clean this water.

A wastewater collection network  should be built in Maracay together with these plants, so that they divert sewage to these treatment plants and the other 14 plants to clean the water and transport it, if possible. But the network has not been completed either.

An audit conducted in 2009 by the Comptroller of the State of Carabobo on the environmental management of Lake Valencia basin specifies that from 1999 to 2009, only 93 km (57.78 mi) of marginal collectors were built; hence, only 51 percent of the sewage was connected to the plants. In this case, the works were part of the "Project for Lake Valencia Clean Up and Level Control," approved in 2005 to be executed in 4 years. It was meant to be ready in 2009. Such works had already been approved in 1999 to be built in five years. They were not executed neither recalculated.

With the amount invested in 13 years, chavismo could have built 18 new hospitals.

From 1999 to 2009, the Venezuelan Government invested Bs. 747,766,208.14 in plans, programs and projects aimed at solving the environmental problem of Lake Valencia basin, as per the report of the Regional Comptroller. That amount is equal to US $ 343,337,829.36, and if you add up the amounts approved from 2009 to 2012, it totals US $ 385 million, e.g. with the amount invested in 13 years Chavismo could have built a fairway, like the Panama Canal, or 18 new hospitals, like the Cardiológico Infantil Latinoamericano hospital.

There are millions spent but not evident in improvements, because the lake level has continued to increase since 1999, when it reached the maximum security level (408 m/1338.58 ft  above sea level). In 2005, it reached 410 m (1345.14 ft) above sea level, and 413.43 m (1356.39 ft) in 2012, two years with the most important emergencies recorded due the water rising, which all the south of Maracay remembers. Now, 2017 could end as another year to remember because of a new emergency in progress.

As the wastewater collection network  has not been completed and neither the 14 water treatment plants, the sewage in Maracay has not stopped draining the lake. When the level rise, the pipes that come out into the lake have been below, thus causing a submerged discharge, explains engineer Castillo. Since the pressure of the lake is greater than the pressure of the wastewater from the pipes, it prevents them from being discharged, so they return. This is what the inhabitants near the lake are experiencing, but also those who live farther away, who, even though they do not see the water knocking at their doors, are affected anyway, as they cannot flush the toilets because they overflow.

Hence the sewage floods, covered by a 20-40 cm (7.87-15.74 in) high green carpet of lemna that have been affecting the families of Paraparal, Aguacatal, Brisas del Lago, Las Vegas and Mata Redonda for two months. With the heavy rains of 2017, rivers have overflowed because, as if it were not enough, their courses cannot reach the lake to drain because its level is too high. This is what has happened since July with the Madre Vieja river, which flows near Mata Redonda and La Esmeralda, and with the Sudantex spillway bordering Aguacatal. Both rivers receive sewage.

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Disappeared Crops

The level of Lake Valencia could lower if its waters, even contaminated, irrigate the sugarcane crops. As it has to go through an industrial process for sugar production, there is no risk that the wastewater affects the end product.

"Cane is the cheapest option to save the lake. It is a strategic cultivation in controlling the lake level because it is a high water consumption plant," explains Rafael Chirinos, an agronomist, former director of the Cane Growers Society of Aragua (Socaragua).

However, since 2009, the production in the lake basin declined with a decree prohibiting planting sugarcane in 53,000 ha (130,965.85 ac) between Aragua and Carabobo, coupled with threats of farm expropriation that led several cane growers to change fields. The decree was intended to use these lands to harvest other foods, like tomato, onion and pepper, and include them in the “Soberania Alimentaria” (Food Sovereignty) plan. According to experts, that was a serious mistake because horticultural products cannot be irrigated with the wastewater of Lake Valencia since they are direct consumption food and do not go through an industrial process.

The project was not executed. Three years later, in 2012, decree 8844 provided for an article that required increasing the crops of high water consumption in the basin of Lake Valencia. But no more sugarcane has been cultivated because there are no resources to do it.

In the case of Aragua lands located in the basin, the hectares for harvesting decreased from 11,000 (27181.59 ac) to 3000 (7413.16 ac). As sugarcane production declined, the lake level increased, becoming evident in 2011 and 2012, when another emergency occurred.

In 2011, since the levels of the lake had risen 3 m (9.84 ft) after the drop in production, Socaragua proposed to the Ministry of Agriculture to plant 3100 ha (7660.267 ac) of sugarcane within a 3-year period. They got no response. On their own initiative, explains Chirinos, a group of sugarcane growers decided to implement the plan, and they have planted 1000 new hectares on their own, but in order to reach 3100 hectares they need a 5-million dollar support from the Government.

Meanwhile, and progressively, hundreds of hectares of sugarcane located in the basin of the lake bordering with the state of Carabobo have been lost by rising water levels. The most affected in this state, unlike Aragua, is precisely the agricultural lands and the roads.

Finca Montecristo, a farm in the municipality of Los Guayos, is an example. It went from having 40 ha (98.84 ac) 20 years ago to only 2 ha (4.94 ac), because 38 ha (93.90 ac) are under the waters of the lake. Two decades ago they were planting 40 hectares of sugarcane. But eight years ago, they were forced to change their field because it is not profitable to grown low quantities of sugarcane, said Carlos Delgado, in charge of the farm. It is a final tragedy. Even if a miracle occurs and the water level decreases, farming  will no longer be possible in these lands.

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Andrea Wulf tells us in her book “The Invention of Nature” that in 1800, Alexander Von Humboldt developed his idea of human-induced climate change precisely at Lake Valencia. Back then, when he met the lake during a visit to the valleys of Aragua, the locals told him that the lake level was falling fast, and that they feared that there was an underground river. After observing its ecosystem, Humboldt concluded that the lake level had fall due to the felling of the surrounding forests and the diversion of the waters that used to feed the lake to irrigate the agricultural fields. What would Humboldt say now if he were to find Lake Valencia under the current conditions?

Photos: Cesar David Bracamonte / Patricia Marcano