Venezuela: lack of access to safe water aggravates the COVID-19 pandemic

An opinion piece by Carlos Lusverti, ICJ Latin America consultant.

Access to safe water and sanitation is a human right, yet millions of persons in Venezuela do not have this right protected or guaranteed in the country.

One of the most important preventive measures that the World Health Organization recommends to avoid the transmission of the SARS-CoV2 virus is for people to constantly wash and sanitize hands. Despite this, millions of people cannot do this in Venezuela.

In 2018, at least 82% of the population did not receive continuous water service and 75% of public healthcare centers reported problems accessing the water supply.  Similar issues have been raised by the ICJ with respect to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic elsewhere, for example in India and South Africa.

Yet water scarcity remains particularly acute in Venezuela. In 2020, the Venezuelan Observatory of Public Services reported that 63.8% of the population considered the water service to be inadequate in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, and a mere 13.6% of the population in cities had a regular water supply.

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has recently reported that several regions inside Venezuela had limited access to water, indicating that “there [was] a critical need to ensure adequate water, sanitation and hygiene services in health, nutrition, education and protection facilities”.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic arrived, the country already was facing a “complex humanitarian emergency” (a humanitarian crisis where there is a considerable breakdown of authority that in Venezuela is not due to an environmental disaster or armed conflict), and the lack of access to water affected at least 4.3 million persons.

Impacts of the lack of water on a healthcare system in critical condition

While water is needed for home consumption, cooking and cleaning, it is also required for effective protection of the right to health, which is at the very core of halting the COVID-19 pandemic. Hospitals and other healthcare facilities in Venezuela have limited access to water and suffer from electricity shortages, which affects the provision of most health services including COVID-19 testing and treatment.

According to the Global Health Security Index on the assessment of global health security capabilities, Venezuela was ranked 176th out of 195 countries in 2019.

This evidences the immense problem the healthcare system has had in addressing the devastating health emergency caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, a problem which is only exacerbated by limited access to water in health facilities.

Water shortages in health facilities contribute to an unsanitary and unhygienic environment. Healthcare centers, like homes, cannot be properly sanitized due to the lack of water and the lack of cleaning supplies. This dramatically increases the health risk for healthcare workers, patients and, consequently, their families, communities and the general public.

Some critical health services such as dialysis and surgery facilities in public hospitals have been closed or restricted due to unsanitary conditions limiting the general access to health services and threatening the right to health of persons in the country.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has described how the restriction on access to water in hospitals has been a growing problem since 2014. This situation could vary from “an entire weekend and at other times lasting as long as five days”. HRW also found that the response of the Venezuelan authorities to COVID-19 “is severely undermined by [the authorities’] failure to publish epidemiological data, which is critical to address a pandemic.

Under these conditions, healthcare workers cannot safely attend to COVID-19 patients, or enjoy their own rights to safe and healthy working conditions. According to Programa Venezolano de Educación Acción en Derechos Humanos (PROVEA), at least 332 health workers in Venezuela have died since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic due to lack of personal protective equipment and other health measures.

Public Protests

State owned companies in charge of water services do not publish any kind of reports related to water quality, even though local NGOs have requested such information.

Throughout the years, several projects, including some with international funding such as from the Inter-American Development Bank, have been established to improve the quality of access to water, but no information about it is publicly available by the country authorities. Transparencia Venezuela has reported that none of these projects are currently active in the country.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said on 11 March 2021 that “access to basic services like medical assistance, water, gas, food, petrol, has continued to be scarcer, and [that] [t]his contributed to sparking social protests, and severely compounded the humanitarian situation”.

In 2020, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and the lockdown restrictions, at least 1,833 different protests have taken place around the country demanding potable water, according to the Venezuelan Observatory of Social Conflict. Usually authorities resolve the demands by sending water in trucks.

The fragile situation – contributed to and worsened by the lack of access to safe water in the country and the vulnerable conditions in which people live – has compelled them to go into the streets to demand their rights in the middle of a pandemic. Public protests in the time of pandemic create risks of contracting COVID-19. And in the present human rights climate of Venezuela it also poses risks of arbitrary detention and excessive use of force, which are now common practices by the authorities.

Upholding the right to water and sanitation in Venezuela

Venezuela is party to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Both treaties establish obligations related to the right to water and sanitation. The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has described the right to water as “one of the most fundamental conditions for survival” and has clarified that States must prioritize access to water resources for preventing “starvation and disease”. Not just any water provision meets this standard: water must be “sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible and affordable”.

In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Committee has reminded States that the right to water must be understood to include water, soap and sanitizer for all, on a continuous basis. Thus, States must make adequate investment in water and sanitation systems, including utilizing international cooperation to that end, to effectively counter global pandemics and to mitigate the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on persons living under vulnerable conditions.

Lack of access to water is a long-standing issue in Venezuela. The authorities should combine immediate relief action and long-term policies to guarantee the right to safe water and sanitation in the country in accordance with international standards. There should be an independent monitoring mechanism of water supply in the country.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Venezuelan authorities must urgently implement emergency policies to provide safe water in all water-scarce areas without any type of discrimination. Priority should be given to ensuring water access in healthcare facilities and the provision of soap, cleaning materials and hand sanitizer.

Finally, Venezuelan authorities should adopt transparent policies that allow for access to public information, in a complete and timely manner, to facilitate the understanding of issues such as the epidemiological situation and data on water quality and accessibility.

This op-ed was originally published in the blog “JUSTICIA EN LAS AMÉRICAS” of the Due Process Law Foundation