April 7, 2016, 12:51 AM EDT April 7, 2016, 1:29 PM EDT
Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro has designated every Friday in the months of April and May as a non-working holiday, a bid to save electricity as a prolonged drought pushes water levels to a critical threshold at hydro-generation plants.
The country will unveil details of a 60-day plan to conserve energy Thursday, Maduro said, adding that measures would include asking large users such as shopping malls and hotels to generate their own electricity for nine hours a day. Heavy industries operating in the country will be asked to cut consumption by 20 percent, he said.
“This plan for 60 days, for two months, will allow the country to get through the most difficult period with the most risk,” Maduro said in a television appearance that went past midnight late Wednesday. “I call on families, on the youth, to join this plan with discipline, with conscience and extreme collaboration to confront this extreme situation,” he added, referring to the drought blamed on the El Nino weather system.
The announcement comes after Maduro shut down the country for a week over the Easter holiday last month, giving workers three additional days off. Maduro said those efforts saved almost 22 centimeters of water at Guri Dam in the southern state of Bolivar, which supplies as much as 75 percent of the electricity consumed in the capital, Caracas.
If water levels at the dam fall below 240 meters above sea level, the government may have to shut down the plant to avoid damaging turbines -- a move that would inevitably lead to increased rationing. The level is currently around 243 meters, Maduro said.
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“The electricity situation would have to be dramatic for a country submerged in crisis to declare Fridays free,” Luis Vicente Leon, director of Caracas-based polling firm Datanalisis, said in a post on his Twitter account. “The condition of the country’s economy and infrastructure is horrific, but even more horrific is that the government’s only response for not having electricity is to turn off the lights.”
It wasn’t immediately clear if the new four-day work week would be extended only to public sector workers or if the measure would include the private sector.
Venezuela’s economy -- largely dependent on oil exports -- contracted 10 percent last year and is expected to shrink an additional 6 percent this year, according to the International Monetary Fund.
While Guri dam accounts for 40 percent of the electricity generated in Venezuela, the onset of the rainy season should push water levels higher and allow the country to avoid further rationing, Bank of America economist Francisco Rodriguez said Thursday in a report.
“We estimate that the resumption of rains in April due both to seasonal patterns and the waning of El Nino should lead to the recovery of dam levels, allowing both Colombia and Venezuela to avoid further rationing,” he said.
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Colombia and Venezuela experienced rainfall levels 27 percent and 15 percent lower, respectively, than their historical averages over the course of the past 12 months, Bank of America said.
Maduro, who said the country had been slow to make gains in reducing residential consumption, ruled out raising electricity prices for the time being. He urged Venezuelans to turn down air conditioners and water heaters, unplug devices and reduce the use of hair and clothes dryers.
“If we don’t reduce residential consumption, all of these measures won’t be enough,” Maduro said. “Clothing and hair dryers use a lot of electricity. Irons, too. We need to create awareness about that.”