CARACAS, Venezuela – Venezuela is at risk of a devastating power collapse as drought pushes water levels precariously low behind the country’s biggest hydroelectric dam, posing a serious political threat for President Hugo Chavez.
Chavez on Friday said his government is determined to keep Guri Dam from falling to a critical level where the turbines start to fail in the next several months.
He has also imposed rationing measures that include penalty fees for energy overuse, shorter workdays for many public employees and reduced hours for shopping malls.
The entire South American country of 28 million people depends to a large degree on the massive Guri Dam, which holds back the Caroni River in southeastern Bolivar state. It supplies 73 percent of the country’s electricity by feeding the massive Guri hydroelectric plant – the world’s third-largest in power output – along with two other smaller plants.
Chavez said that the dam’s water level is now about 33 feet below where it was last year, and if it falls 82 feet more before the dry season ends, “we would be at a standstill.”
Chavez said that would force the government to suspend the generation of about 5,000 megawatts of power – causing blackouts for large swaths of Venezuela.
“We can’t allow the water to reach this level,” Chavez said. He said officials are aiming to prevent it by diminishing power generation at Guri and decreasing the flow of water that moves through the turbines.
Government officials say their rationing plan should help the country reach May, when seasonal rains are predicted to return. But even Chavez concedes the situation is serious. His past efforts to solve the problem have included sending cloud-seeding planes to produce rain with the help of Cuba.
An internal report by the state company Electricidad del Caroni, which oversees the dam, was recently published in the Venezuelan press and predicted that if water levels keep falling at current rates, the dam could reach a critical level in about four months.
Experts say the amount of water reaching the turbines could eventually decrease to such an extent that they would no longer feed the power grid.
“We’d be in a situation where we’d have to halt the country, the entire economy,” said Victor Poleo, an oil economics professor at Venezuela’s Central University and a former official in Chavez’s Energy Ministry. Without power from Guri, he said, the country’s existing gas- and oil-fired power plants would be able to cover only about 20 percent of the demand – producing widespread and sustained outages.