In the past two days, I have seen two interesting pieces about the possibility of an El Niño event occurring later this year. The first, from Vox, is about how the consensus is moving toward the likelihood that it may prove to be the strongest El Niño since 1997-98. The other is a short article about how Colombia is preemptively reducing its natural gas sales to Venezuela to ensure sufficient domestic availability in the event that hydro generation falls due to dryer weather. For Venezuelans, these are inauspicious pieces of news considering the near catastrophic effect the most recent El Niño had on the country’s energy production and the even more fragile state the entire country finds itself this year.
Though the last El Niño event in 2009-10 was fairly strong, it was weaker than the one predicted this year. Nevertheless, it led to a major drought in the northern Andes, especially in Venezuela. Water levels at the Guri Dam, which accounts for as much as a third of Venezuela’s domestic energy production fell within a few feet of the minimum threshold for generation. The near collapse of the energy generation matrix forced the government to take emergency actions. Some of these were standard, if drastic, such as instituting rolling brown and blackouts. Others were more outlandish, including exhorting the values of a three minute “communist shower” and bombing clouds to stimulate rain. This all coincided with the first time during his post-coup presidency that Chávez’s approval rating fell below 50 percent.
Although Chávez liked to claim that the crisis was solely reflective of the El Niño-affected drought, the effects in 2010 were so severe in Venezuela compared to other, similarly affected nations due to a lack of investment in the country’s generation capacity. The government had promised significant investments but little of the money ever actually was spent and capacity grew far more slowly than consumption. During the crisis, the government set a goal of installing 6GW of new capacity—more than had been installed in the entire chavista era until that point. It installed enough capacity to keep the energy matrix from collapsing, but does not appear to have met that goal. The crisis did serve as a catalyst for thawing Venezuelan-Colombian relations as Venezuela had to negotiate with Colombia to buy natural gas to power the new capacity, something that will apparently be more difficult this year.
In the time since, blackouts have become common all across the country, even as the acute crisis has faded into the distance. Moreover, the government has proven, if anything, to be even less competent at coordinating mass investments than it was four years ago, even before a now-two month-old wave of protests put the government on the defensive. This makes the threat of a severe El Niño particularly salient, since they are usually associated with warmer and dryer than normal weather. The government is weak and widely viewed as incapable of handling the myriad of problems already affecting the country. A comparatively mild El Niño-driven dry spell could have the same type of effect on electricity generation that happened in 2010.
The question for Nicolás Maduro is if he can withstand yet another force pushing down the quality of life of the average Venezuelan.