Venezuela’s Oil Industry Leaves Polluted Legacy
In Venezuela is Lake Maracaibo, the largest lake in the South America. It covers around 13,210 square kilometres and is not actually a lake as it is connected to the Gulf of Venezuela by the Tablazo Strait. The strait is 5.5 kilometres wide at the narrowest. The lake, which has brackish tidal waters, is one of the oldest lakes on Earth at an estimated age of 20-36 million years. The lake was once isolated and previously did not connect to the sea hence being a historic lake.
The very short term history of the lake has seen it been exploited for its oil wealth. It was in 1914 that the first oil well was sunk to exploit oil here. The region here grew rich and benefited the local population as well as Venezuela. More recently the situation has been reversed though mainly down to political mismanagement. Extraction of oil means the lake is gradually subsiding as the land settles into ground that once contained oil. This can cause localised flooding.
Recently the oil industry that had made Venezuela wealthy has declined with the near bankrupt state oil company PDVSA neglecting to maintain a network of underwater pipes that transport the oil. The result is “multiple spills, everywhere” according to the UK Times newspaper (17 March 2018). The oil spills are polluting Lake Maracaibo and affecting the fish within the bay. This also has an impact on people trying to fish for food as the Venezuelan economic crisis worsens as outlined below.
According to the article in Mongabay the 25,000 kilometres of pipelines have not been maintained since 2009. In July 2010 there was a major oil spill in the lake adding to the pollution (referred to in this Huffington Post article). Another, earlier, spill in 1997 saw 25 thousand barrels of oil released into the water. It took until 2015 to get compensation for that spill. Fish are contaminated and there are air quality issues caused by toxic fumes from the oil seeping from leaking pipelines. The pollution is not a new phenomenon and there have been incidents that have affected the water quality over many years from the 1930s. Since 1914 15,000 oil wells have been drilled in the lagoon. Many wells are abandoned now. Water is polluted with toxic deposits.
Lake Maracaibo once supported a healthy commercial fishing industry but today individuals risk the toxic pollution to get some food, if they are able to catch any fish at all. Commercial catches used to be around a tonne of fish per week. Today the catches rarely exceeds 300 kilograms. Sometimes the daily catch is less than 20 kilograms of fish. Once common commercial fish species such as Bocachico and shrimp have almost entirely disappeared in the lake area.
The impact of the oil prices declining was mentioned in this previous post which considered the economic turmoil within the country. It highlighted the crippling inflation rate (which has worsened due to printing more money). Inflation has hit 6000% and could hit 13000% by the end of 2018. Since 2016 the situation has not improved as can be seen in this Business Week article. Maintenance of oil facilities has recently stopped. Maintenance workers are no longer employed having been made redundant due to the political and economic situation in Venezuela. Those remaining oil workers can no longer afford to live or even buy basic food provisions. There are reports of “children dying of malnutrition and adults sifting garbage for table scraps” as people try to survive. Oil production has declined mainly due to corruption within the oil industry. The population is suffering from the economic consequences with 64 percent of the country’s residents losing weight during 2017. Oil workers have become malnourished. The Maduro Government regime has purged the industry, although the Times notes that this may have been due to errors made by his predecessor President Hugo Chavez. Hyperinflation within the country has made wages worthless. Oil output from 2001-2017 has declined by around 33%. It is set to decline further this year.
Lake Maracaibo and its people are suffering from prolonged oil pollution. The pollution has been exacerbated by political, economic and geographical factors. Geography of the basin restricts polluted water being exchanged with the sea. Linked to these factors are decisions to reduce maintenance which has led to human and environmental tragedies around the heartland of one of Venezuela’s main oil production areas. People and the environment share a similar fate in the Lake Maracaibo area: both are experiencing extreme stresses that should not continue.