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Challenges and opportunities facing Venezuela’s water industry

Venezuela's engineering industry has seen many changes, and with it several challenges particularly to water supply and sewerage services. But the current climate has pushed engineers to think outside the box.

Gabriella Bausson, Civil Engineer in Calibre's Water & Environment team in Brisbane spent her early career in the water industry in Venezuela before moving to Australia four years ago. We talked to her about the water challenges facing Venezuela and the opportunities for Australian expertise to be shared.

Australian Water Association: What are Venezuela’s current engineering and water challenges?

Gabriella Bausson: In order to identify the engineering and water challenges that Venezuela currently faces, it’s relevant to understand the changes to the engineering industry that Venezuela has recently undergone.

From 1950 to 2000, the country’s engineering industry was well respected internationally. Venezuela was widely recognised as the outstanding developing country of the South American region. Some of Venezuela’s biggest engineering achievements have included the Simón Bolívar Hydroelectric Plant, the world’s fourth-largest generating facility; the Sistema Tuy I, II & II, one of the most progressive potable water enterprises in Latin America; and the “General Rafael Urdaneta Bridge”, the world’s longest cable-stayed bridge when it was completed in 1962.

However, after 20 years of political revolution with a lack of proper democratic processes and policymaking, and poor socioeconomic conditions, the engineering industry has been dealt a range of water challenges.

The National Infrastructure Plan has been abandoned and with it, water supply and sewerage services. Only 45% of sewers are connected to the national network, with the remainder discharging directly into creeks, rivers or even discharging openly onto the streets. Only 23% of the planned sewer network has been built and only 10% is operational and barely achieving the required level of treatment.

The water supply company suffers from mismanagement and corruption, with many important projects, which have been on the National Infrastructure Plan since 1999, still incomplete. This has led to the rationing of water all around the country, with potable water provided only one day a week in urban areas and just one day per month in the rural areas.

Stormwater drains have been completely neglected in the National Infrastructure Plan, with no maintenance requirements for existing systems. Design standards have no requirements for flooding analysis or flood mitigation for new developments.

Nevertheless, the current climate has pushed engineers’ problem-solving abilities. For today, engineers in Venezuela must consider new variables such as lack of data, syndicate corruption and professional resources.

AWA: What expertise can Australia offer Venezuela to overcome these challenges?

GB: Last year I visited Venezuela and discovered that the engineering students were particularly interested and impressed with Australian engineering methods and practice. I proposed that Venezuelans and Australians could exchange ideas and combine their strengths so that innovative approaches and technological knowledge could be integrated to the benefit of both parties. One potential pathway is supporting Venezuela’s institutions by providing information, seminars and guidance on current Australian methods, practices and technologies. This approach may mitigate the shortage of lecturers and tutors currently available in the Venezuelan system.

Australia can offer different programs of online distance education, for example, through a sharing platform where lecturers and students can exchange information, new knowledge and skills. Engineers in Australia could tutor and support students in their thesis work or research projects and this support could also be provided to Venezuelan engineers in private companies with guidance, training, motivation and education on sustainable solutions. Venezuelans can learn new skills and, at the same time, provide creative insight to their Australian counterparts.

AWA: Are the UN's Sustainable Development Goals on the radar of the Venezuelan people? If so how?

GB: Recently Glenn Scherer (Feb 02, 2018) provided an excellent response to this question. In his article titled “Venezuela: can a failing state protect its environment and its people?”, he indicated that “11.4 percent of Venezuela’s children are malnourished and 10.5 percent of its workforce is unemployed. The economy is on track to shrink for the third straight year, with GDP set to drop 20.7 percent below its 2014 level, and inflation expected to reach 1,700 percent.” More recent estimates put the inflation rate for 2017 at between 2,300 percent and 2,700 percent, with food, fuel and medicine shortages bringing widespread looting.

The publication explains that with the collapse of the Venezuelan oil industry, the government has tried to boost the nation’s finances by selling off its mineral wealth. They have attracted major mining companies and international investors by opening the Orinoco Arco Minero mining zone in 2016, and launching the petrol cryptocurrency in 2017, with Venezuela’s version of bitcoin purportedly backed by its oil and mineral reserves.

Precious resources are exploited by corrupt military commanders setting up their own illicit mining fiefdoms, with armed gangs of illegal miners and many indigenous people forced by the current economic conditions to work in the mines. The region also includes the Canaima National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site spanning 30,000 km2.

UN articles about this topic also explain that Venezuelans have reached a desperate point with their current humanitarian crisis. In my opinion, the current dictatorship has been covering up the crisis and therefore is rejecting help from other countries and international organisations.

AWA: In the spirit of our Ozwater'18 theme, what's the most evolutionary revolutionary thing you've seen in the water industry since you first began?

GB: Over the past 18 months working at Calibre, I have had the opportunity to be part of the Water & Environment team, specifically doing stormwater designs. I have learnt many highly advanced water engineering methods and techniques and have found current Australian practice highly impressive. Most of them are years or even decades away from being realised in Venezuela.

These include the large variety of quality stormwater treatments available, and many possibilities to incorporate them that can be beneficial for communities as recreational and social areas. Australia's flood analysis and peak flow mitigation is highly detailed, using latest available data and computational software. Moreover, the high level of competition ensures that the market is constantly enhancing the quality and capability of their products.

Australia has inspired me with the excellence levels achieved, in terms of quality and compliance with norms, design standards and policies. The Australian market contains a wide diversity of professional services and skills, and knowledge is efficiently transferred between multiple industry sectors and different geographies and needs.

AWA: Ending on a positive note, what excites you about the future of the water industry?

GB: I am highly impressed with the sustainable and ecological solutions that Australia’s water industry is achieving. There has been great effort to correctly price water services in order to combat excess consumption and climate change impacts. The high quality of infrastructure maintenance and the motivation from councils looking to improve standards is motivating stakeholders to get involved with eco-friendly initiatives such as recycling water and desalination plants. In addition, the improvement in stormwater treatment devices by the industry is flooding the market with a range of solutions. On top of this, people’s health is in balance with the health of the environment and the great performance of the water industry and its decision-makers.

I’m excited that I’ve found a new path to help Venezuelans overcome the current engineering and water crisis. Many ideas and inspirations have come from sharing my experience with Venezuelan university students and then with my Australian co-workers.

I’m confident that if the collaboration between Australia and Venezuela develops, the benefits from the social-engineering point of view are going to end in productive and fulfilling experiences for everyone involved.