CARACAS, Venezuela — Venezuela is at risk of a devastating power collapse as drought pushes water levels precariously low in 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 (10 meters) below where it was last year, and if it falls 82 feet (25 meters) 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.
An internal report by the state company Electricidad del Caroni, which oversees the dam, 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.
For now, his government has determined its best hope of averting disaster is to reduce electricity usage through rationing. Measures include penalty fees for businesses and other big customers that don't meet 20 percent reduction targets. Billboards are required to switch to efficient lighting.
The government has also partially shut down state-run steel and aluminum plants.
Chavez said the government will offer incentives for families that use less electricity. He also announced Friday that many public employees will have shorter workdays — from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. — except those in offices that tend to the public.
Some parts of the country have already been enduring regular blackouts for months, as demand outstripped the electrical supply.
"If that dam reaches its critical point, filling it is really a two- to three-year job," Poleo said.
Chavez has blamed the electricity predicament on the El Niño weather phenomenon in the Pacific Ocean, along with global warming. But critics blame the government, saying investments in infrastructure haven't kept up in spite of Venezuela's bountiful oil earnings.