Drought, El Niño, Blackouts and Venezuela

It’s fashionable these days to blame everything that goes wrong with anything on human interference with the climate, and we had yet another example last week when President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela fingered drought, El Niño and global warming as the reasons Venezuela’s lights keep going out. In this post I show that his Excellency has not a leg to stand on when he makes these claims, but that because no one ever looks at the data everyone believes him.

International Business Times:  Venezuelan Leader Blames El Niño And Global Warming For Nation’s Energy Crisis

The fierce El Niño event under way in the Pacific Ocean and warming global temperatures have helped create the brutal drought now racking Venezuela, President Nicolás Maduro said Wednesday night. Venezuela is facing its worst drought in almost half a century. The nation depends on hydropower for nearly two-thirds of its electricity, but the reservoirs that fuel its facilities are evaporating. Power outages in recent weeks have forced factories to send workers home early, slowing production, and many residents are now scrambling to secure enough drinking water supplies.

The fierce El Niño created the brutal drought now racking Venezuela, the worst in almost half a century. No pulling of punches. Boiled down to essentials, however, there are three issues here – a) is there really a “brutal” drought in Venezuela, b) if so, did the “fierce” El Niño cause it and c) has global warming made it worse? We’ll take a look at these issues shortly, but first it’s important to note that about 70% of Venezuela’s electricity comes from one massive installation, the Guri dam on the Caroni River (officially the Simon Bolívar Hydroelectric Plant) which holds back a 4,000 square kilometer lake, about the same size as Rhode Island or Somerset.

Figure 1: The Guri dam and Lake Guri

It’s hard to think of such a huge lake drying up, but that indeed now seems to be the case. According to this panampost article water levels are now so low that complete shutdown could result by early May if it doesn’t rain in the meantime.

But why is Lake Guri drying up? Time to review the possibilities:

1. Drought:

Rainfall is as always the key variable here, and to check on rainfall around Lake Guri I selected the five Global Historic Climate Network V2 records shown in the Figure 2 Google Earth image. They ring Lake Guri except to the south, where there are no stations.

Figure 2: GHCN V2 rainfall stations around Lake Guri. Data KNMI Climate Explorer.

The monthly rainfall data for these five stations are shown in Figure 3:

Figure 3: Monthly rainfall, five GHCN V2 stations around Lake Guri

So where’s the brutal drought?

Maybe we’re standing back too far to see it, so let’s zoom in on recent years:

Figure 4: Monthly rainfall, five GHCN V2 stations around Lake Guri, 2012-2016 data

Ciudad Bolívar had a dry 2015 but rainfall at the other four stations was about normal. Clearly there is no significant drought in Venezuela at the moment, brutal or otherwise, or at least not in the area around Lake Guri.

2. El Niño

The fact that there is no drought in Venezuela makes the impact of the recent El Niño irrelevant, but I did some work to see how closely monthly rainfall at the five stations correlates with the Niño3.4 Index over time anyway. Here are the results:

Niño3.4 versus San Fernando, R squared = 0.00
Niño3.4 versus Ciudad Bolívar, R squared = 0.00
Niño3.4 versus Tumeremo, R squared = 0.02
Niño3.4 versus Santa Elena, R squared = 0.04
Niño3.4 versus Puerto Ayacucho, R squared = 0.00

We can conclude from these results that ENSO events have historically had little or no impact on rainfall in Venezuela.

3. Temperature:

President Maduro also claimed that warming temperatures are exacerbating the “drought”, which indeed they could if a) there was a drought and b) the temperature increases were large enough. But temperatures in Venezuela haven’t increased that much, if at all. The trend line through the GHCNv2 temperature record for Ciudad Bolívar, the closest station to Lake Guri, shows a 0.2C increase at most since 1950:

Figure 5: Ciudad Bolívar monthly mean temperature anomalies

We can conclude here that Venezuela is not suffering too much from global warming either.

4. Undersupply 

This is of course the real reason. Venezuela does not have either the installed capacity or the reliable grid network needed to supply the country’s electricity demand (the retail electricity price in Venezuela in 2014 was only $0.02/kWh) and it’s being forced to drain Lake Guri to get whatever electricity it can.

5. Conclusions

President Maduro, that’s four strikes. You’re out.

But unfortunately he isn’t. If you do a web search for “Venezuela drought” you will be hard pressed to find a single story that questions whether there really is a drought there. Everybody accepts that there is. And while it’s widely acknowledged that Venezuela’s difficulties are largely a result of mismanagement of its electricity sector it’s still generally believed that there would be no electricity shortage if there were no drought. Indeed, it seems that all you have to do these days if your misguided energy policies happen to plunge your country into darkness is to go on television and blame it all on some aspect of climate change and you are off the hook.

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35 Responses to Drought, El Niño, Blackouts and Venezuela

  1. Roy Ramage says:

    Roger it is no surprise that governments will blame anything or anyone for their ineptitude. When you say everyone I suppose you mean poor Venezuelans. Here in Australia we prefer to put blame where it really lies..with inept politicians.

  2. Daniel says:

    Thanks for your excellent analysis, Roger.
    Understand 2/3 of Venezuela generating capacity comes from hydroelectric and they are about to collapse as water level approaching one where turbine cavitation starts.


    • Stuart Brown says:

      Looks like a fine example of politicians believing that arguing with physics is enough, engineers clearly don’t know what they are talking about. And if the engineers carry on making upsetting noises instead of just solving the problem – remove them!

      Interesting that Venezuela has been here before – and they still aren’t listening.

  3. chaamjamal says:

    really excellent analysis. thank you. i will post on twitter.

  4. GV says:

    I must be missing something.
    The water level drops but not due to drought. Then you jump to the conclusion that an electricity shortage must be due to mismanagement but this doesn’t answer the question why the water level is dropping, or does it? How do you link mismanagement and the drop in water level?

    • RDG says:

      Roger stated above: “…and it’s being forced to drain Lake Guri to get whatever electricity it can.”

      In this blog post written 6 years ago, the author kind of makes the same point as Roger:


      “The core issue is that Venezuela today does not have sufficient power generation capacity to keep up with growing power demand.”

      “*Insufficient operational thermal power generation capacity. About two-thirds of the country’s state-owned thermal power generation assets currently are offline or working substantially below their installed capacity, and execution/completion of the regime’s planned new thermal power generation projects is running five to seven years behind schedule.

      *The national power transmission grid is about 25 years old, on average, and its creeping obsolescence has been accelerated by the Chavez regime’s total disregard for maintenance. In addition, the state-owned power sector has not built any new 765 kV and 400 kV transmission lines in the past decade, almost.

      *The state-owned power sector has accumulated massive liabilities (part of which pre-date the Chavez era) that easily total over $5 billion (including labor and other “pasivos” that usually are not acknowledged in the official numbers) because A) other state-owned entities do not pay their power bills, and B) power rates have been frozen by government decree since 2003. ”

      I also thought this statement was applicable to not only Venezuela:

      “*The best power engineers and technicians were purged from the state-owned power sector years ago by a regime that prizes revolutionary ideology and loyalty to Chavez above knowledge, skill, competence and professionalism.”

      A comment on the blog post is also interesting:

      “First, when the exact site of the dam was chosen they always had in mind two “clear water” river sources(two is better then one, as in more reliability); El río Paragua and El Caroni. The Orinoco river was never contemplated as a source because of its abundant sediment. Furthermore, clear water(sediment free) promises longer life for the turbines, and prevents cavitation. The dam as it is lacks lower trap doors(valves?) for releasing sand and debris and makes maintenance a rather dificult task. On the other hand, illegal open mining with compliance from the government has turned two clear water sources into muddy ones putting the dam at risk. ”

      El Nino, Climate Change, Drought,…whats interesting is that Maduro left out the kitchen sink ala “We are broke because of Peak Oil”

  5. Luís says:

    Dear Roger,

    Of the five weather stations you chose, only one is sited on a contributing area to the Guri – Santa Ana. Such a lean dataset does not allow you to conclude much regarding the state of contributing streams to the Guri.

    While I tend to agree with your conclusion on “over-supply”, I would rather have hard electricity generation figures before terminally concluding so.


    • Lars says:

      I was thinking the same thing. I checked Wikipedia and the Guri reservoir is formed by the river Coroni like Roger mentions which has a basin of 95000 km2/37000 sqm. The river can clearly be seen on the picture. Probably the only contributing weather station here is Santa Elena, and based on figure 3 and 4 it seems there has been a very moderate drought there since 2011. At all events this can hardly explain the drying up of the Guri reservoir.

    • Roger Andrews says:

      The conclusion was actually “undersupply”, and the details I’ve been able to compile on Venezuela’s electricity sector – which are few and far between – tend to confirm this. The graphic below is from EIA and Trading Economics data.

      According to these results Venezuela increased its installed capacity by only about 30% between 1986 and 2011 while electricity demand almost tripled over the same period. As a result the plants that were servicing demand at a very comfortable capacity factor of 30% in 1986 were having to run at close to 60% CF to service demand in 2011. I have no data after 2011 but am sure that things haven’t gotten any better since then.

      It’s lucky that similar capacity shortfalls aren’t a problem in Europe. 😉

      • Lars says:

        Well then, it looks like Venezuela is in dire need of some wind mills and solar pv panels. Maybe Europe can send some second hand ones to Maduro & co.?

  6. Euan Mearns says:

    Let’s focus on what we know:

    1) Venezuela has been politically, socially and economically mis managed for decades
    2) The oil price crash has made things much worse
    3) There has been a large el Nino
    4) There has been blackouts

    So what is the underlying cause of blackouts?

    • Alex says:

      5) Electricity consumption – mostly hydro – is significantly subsidised, meaning demand outstrips supply.

  7. john Pitman says:

    Another confounding factor is the link between deforestation, soil erosion, reduction in reservoir capacity due to increased sedimentation as a result of increased soil erosion, and increased flood runoff.

    “According to the U.N. FAO, 52.5% or about 46,275,000 ha of Venezuela is forested, according to FAO.

    Change in Forest Cover: Between 1990 and 2010, Venezuela lost an average of 287,550 ha or 0.55% per year. In total, between 1990 and 2010, Venezuela lost 11.1% of its forest cover, or around 5,751,000 ha.” http://rainforests.mongabay.com/deforestation/2000/Venezuela.htm

    The point here is that we need to examine both the runoff output from the dam site, as well as the rainfall inputs.
    Runoff is simply the difference between
    P = (E + ET +/- S) , where P=precipitation, E=evaporation and ET = evapotranspiration and S= changes in catchment storage.
    According the Wiki:
    “The Caroni is one of the rivers with the highest discharge rates in the world, with respect to the area of its basin. The average discharge is 4,850 cubic metres per second (171,000 cu ft/s), with variations caused by the wet/dry seasons. The average maximum discharge is 6,260 cubic metres per second (221,000 cu ft/s), and the average minimum is 3,570 cubic metres per second (126,000 cu ft/s). Among the historic extremes are 17,576 cubic metres per second (620,700 cu ft/s).” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caron%C3%AD_River

    I have not so far managed to find any detailed data on the Caroni River daily flow rate below the dams.an anyone help re this data?

  8. Leo Smith says:

    “but that because no one ever looks at the data everyone believes him”.

    Come again?

    All your base belong to us.

  9. It doesn't add up... says:

    I tried looking at some satellite monitoring – this for example:


    Key to map colours here:


    Nothing evidently arid in the area of Lago Guri.

  10. marchesarosa says:

    Venezuela population 1950 5 million
    Venezuela population 2016 29 million.

  11. It doesn't add up... says:

    Here’s an interesting “theory” of localised climate change:


    Meanwhile Reuters has a photo essay here


    Some rather misleading description, I suspect. Land that has been submerged for a long time no longer has viable flora. They’re carefully not drawing attention to the greenery above the old waterline. The photographed level is below 243m.

    • Grant says:

      That’s rather interesting.

      Are the effects larger than people think?

      The snow on Kilimanjaro might be another example of apparently unrelated activities having a wider than expected effect – in that case tree removal in the area around the mountain.

      The Venezuelan Dam has a double effect, removing flora and replacing it with water.

      Maybe we should thinking of it as “at least a double effect” since other matters are clearly in play if one takes the potential for sedimentation and discharge variation into account. Likely other matters to.

      It would be interesting to check for any weather/climate effects at other dam based generation projects. I’m thinking smaller ones and perhaps in the UK. How small do they have to stay to avoid measurable changes to recorded “weather” patterns?

      I also wonder about the effects of wind generation locations and how changing patterns of airflow might subtly alter what happens downwind.

      • Maybe we should thinking of it as “at least a double effect” since other matters are clearly in play if one takes the potential for sedimentation and discharge variation into account.

        All that has happened here is that the Venezuelan government has manufactured a non-existent drought so that it can blame climate change rather than their own incompetence for the problems with the Guri dam, which they have been busily draining to extinction to keep up with demand. The situation would be exactly the same if Lake Guri had modified the climate, which I doubt that it has.

  12. Daniel says:

    Great analysis Roger. Is there anyway to get this information to the people in the country. Again, great work, now it needs to get to the citizens.

  13. Thank you Daniel. But I think the Venezuelan people have other things to worry about, like where the next meal is coming from and what will happen when the country starts to unravel altogether:

    Venezuela is on the fast track to smash-up:

  14. Gaznotprom says:

    Think Venezuela is just another modern socialist paradise where nothing works properly and now have run out of other people’s money – with the oil price has collapsing…

    And because the market has been destroyed with price fixing etc there’s no incentive to sort it out, so clearly its pertinent to blame some externality – drum roll l…climate change…

  15. Thank you for the excellent analysis. “It’s fashionable these days to blame everything …”, that is my view, too.
    German newspapers report that an expert of the country noted that the government must take some of the blame for the situation that has arisen. This because over the last years it didn’t implement new resevoirs or power plants, despite both the population and the consumption have steadily increased.

    • RDG says:

      Nothing has to be real, it only has to be sold.

      There is a studied unwillingness to see cost as the important metric-money is just a trading unit of energy.

      As the transmission lines get longer to the “free” energy sources, more and more of the “renewable” energy is used to heat up wires high in the air. Market distortions and even lower effectiveness of resources will result.

      I highly doubt any of the government goofballs knows anything of the details of electrical distribution. What a politician sees is a happenstance that he/she can use to show what they are doing for the state.

  16. moctavio says:

    I picked up on your post and extended some of it:


    It certainly does not look like an anomalous year in terms of drought.

  17. clacuci says:

    Sorry but I read figure 4 differently, with the exception (maybe) of San Fernando all other charts show a clear and sudden slump in rain precipitations for late 2015/ early 2016!

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