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Mountain park becomes public bath amid Venezuela crisis

Published
In this Wednesday, April 3, 2019 photo, a man get undressed before he bathes in one of the streams that comes down from El Avila National Park in Caracas, Venezuela. El Avila National Park, which for decades has been the icon and lung of the capital, has now been transformed into a large public bath where hundreds of people come every day to take a bathe and collect water. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — After generations of breathing life into Venezuela's crowded capital, the tree-covered slopes of El Avila mountain looming above Caracas are being transformed into a public bath amid worsening power failures that are disrupting life in the crisis-wracked country.

Every day, hundreds of people without running water hike up from the city on Avila's winding trails to bathe, wash clothes and collect water to carry home. To the dismay of environmental activists who fear the damage will be irreversible, people are littering its slopes and creeks with shampoo and water bottles, food wrappers, cardboard and old clothes.

Wildfires in recent weeks that charred swaths of the drought-stricken mountain have compounded the damage, threatening to leave long-term environmental scars on the land declared a national park six decades ago.

School bus driver Gorge Eglis Escalante and his teenage daughter dragged a pink basket of dirty clothes to a secluded spot recently. Spigots in their Chacaito neighborhood ran dry nearly a month earlier.

"I never would have imagined doing this here," Escalante said while soaking a shirt in a bucket of stream water and detergent after scrubbing it on a rock. "We have the government to thank for this."

Residents of Caracas have been crowding waterways in the park of 315 square miles (81,800 hectares) every day since Venezuela's power grid failed March 7, knocking out lights as well as the pumps that move water to homes.

The nationwide blackout, and others that have followed, comes as President Nicolas Maduro and opposition leader Juan Guaidó struggle over power. The opposition, which blames Venezuela's economic collapse on mismanagement and damaging policies by the socialist government, is trying to oust Maduro with backing from the United States and some 50 other nations.

Officially given the indigenous name "Waraira Repano," or "Sierra Grande," the park is home to dozens of birds and other species, such as opossums, bats, squirrels, pumas, foxes, porcupines and deer.

The wildlife relies on its pristine brooks and creeks for water and the animals put their nests and burrows amid the vast stretch of trees and shrubs that is now being invaded by humans.

Liquor store clerk Jonathan Lopez said he began visiting Avila at dawn two weeks ago to bathe and collect water after his poor 23rd of January neighborhood lost electricity.

"It gives you the shivers," he said of his bath in the crystal-clear Chacaito stream, scooping water with his hands to rinse soap from his head and body while standing thigh-deep. "But you have to put up to get by."

Nearby, a thin man wearing jeans and a light blue sweat shirt filled plastic bottles with water. Then he unzipped his trousers and tried to urinate unnoticed in the stream.

Wildfires that have hit the park lately and the influx of people have put the mountain in a "high risk" situation, said José Manuel Silva, director of Venezuela Verde, a charity dedicated to environmental protection.

"It's having a big impact on Avila," Silva said.

But there is little that can be done to protect the park amid Venezuela's economic crunch, he said. He noted that state agencies have had to dramatically reduce numbers of park rangers and firefighters. And, he added, it's impossible to stop the influx of people searching for water — a basic human necessity.

Doing rounds at Avila, a National Parks Institute official said authorities are aware of the trash piling up and the environmental damage.

But the official, who insisted on speaking anonymously because he was not authorized to comment, said his work is now limited to guaranteeing that people who come to Avila for water "don't get out of hand."

Lopez, the liquor store clerk, conceded that he is also concerned about the treasured park's fate. Near his makeshift bath, somebody had left behind old clothes hanging on bushes.

Even the soap and laundry detergents he uses will take a toll, Lopez said. But he said he has few other options to get cleaned up.

"You don't truly appreciate the things you have until you've lost them," he said.

___

Fabiola Sanchez on Twitter: https://twitter.com/fisanchezn

In this Tuesday, April 2, 2019 photo, a woman bathes in one of the streams that comes down from El Avila National Park in Caracas, Venezuela. Generations living in Venezuela's capital have cherished Avila, a towering tree-covered mountain that breathes life into the crowded city below. This natural treasure has now been relegated, at a time of the country's deepening crisis, to an outdoor bathroom. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)
In this March 18, 2019 photo, flames rise from El Avila National park in Caracas, Venezuela. The recent fires as well as the massive visits generated due to water scarcity have put El Ávila in a situation of
Angel Sanchez bathes in one of the streams that comes down from El Avila National Park, during interruptions in running water in Caracas, Venezuela, Wednesday, April 3, 2019. The park's invasion by desperate Caracas residents alarms environmentalists who fear it will leave irreversible damage. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)
In this Wednesday, April 3, 2019 photo, a man washes clothes in a stream that comes down from El Avila National Park in Caracas, Venezuela. Hundreds living in Caracas without running water each day hike from their homes up Avila's winding trails to bathe, wash clothes and collect water to carry home. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)
In this Wednesday, April 3, 2019 photo, an abandoned bra lays on a rock near a stream that comes down from El Avila National Park in Caracas, Venezuela. Hundreds living in Caracas without running water are littering the park's slopes and creeks with shampoo and water bottles, food wrappers, cardboard and discarded clothes. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)
In this Wednesday, April 3, 2019 photo, a man collects water from a stream that comes down from El Avila National Park in Caracas, Venezuela. The park's invasion by desperate Caracas residents alarms environmentalists who fear it will leave irreversible damage. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)
In this Wednesday, April 3, 2019 photo, a girl attempts to carry two containers full of water collected from a stream that comes down from El Avila National Park in Caracas, Venezuela. Hundreds living in Caracas without running water each day hike from their homes up Avila's winding trails to bathe, wash clothes and collect water to carry home.(AP Photo/Fernando Llano)
In this Tuesday, April 2, 2019 photo, a woman fills containers with water collected from a stream that comes down from El Avila National Park in Caracas, Venezuela. It's become common to see hundreds of people carrying empty bottles, bath towels and laundry baskets deep into El Avila, tired of going without or standing in longs lines to take advantage of scarce supplies in town. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)
In this Wednesday, April 3, 2019 photo, soft drink bottles filled with water collected from a stream that comes down from El Avila National Park lay o the ground in the park, in Caracas, Venezuela. A National Parks Institute official admitted that the authorities are well aware of the trash people are leaving behind and the environmental damage. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)
In this Wednesday, April 3, 2019 photo, a stream comes down from El Avila National Park in Caracas, Venezuela. The national park spanning 315 square miles (81,800 hectares) has drawn of hundreds of visitors daily starting March 7 when a massive blackout hit nationwide, taking down with it water services. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)
In this Wednesday, April 3, 2019 photo, a man washes his car with water collected from a stream that comes down from El Avila National Park in Caracas, Venezuela. The park's invasion by desperate Caracas residents alarms environmentalists who fear it will leave irreversible damage. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)
In this Wednesday, April 3, 2019 photo, soft drink bottles filled with water collected from a stream that comes down from El Avila National Park lay o the ground in the park, in Caracas, Venezuela. A National Parks Institute official admitted that the authorities are well aware of the trash people are leaving behind and the environmental damage. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)
In this Wednesday, April 3, 2019 photo, soft drink bottles filled with water collected from a stream that comes down from El Avila National Park lay o the ground in the park, in Caracas, Venezuela. A National Parks Institute official admitted that the authorities are well aware of the trash people are leaving behind and the environmental damage. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)
In this Wednesday, April 3, 2019 photo, a man washes clothes in a stream that comes down from El Avila National Park in Caracas, Venezuela. Hundreds living in Caracas without running water each day hike from their homes up Avila's winding trails to bathe, wash clothes and collect water to carry home. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)
In this Wednesday, April 3, 2019 photo, a man washes clothes in a stream that comes down from El Avila National Park in Caracas, Venezuela. Hundreds living in Caracas without running water each day hike from their homes up Avila's winding trails to bathe, wash clothes and collect water to carry home. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)
In this Wednesday, April 3, 2019 photo, a man get undressed before he bathes in one of the streams that comes down from El Avila National Park in Caracas, Venezuela. El Avila National Park, which for decades has been the icon and lung of the capital, has now been transformed into a large public bath where hundreds of people come every day to take a bathe and collect water. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)
In this Wednesday, April 3, 2019 photo, a man get undressed before he bathes in one of the streams that comes down from El Avila National Park in Caracas, Venezuela. El Avila National Park, which for decades has been the icon and lung of the capital, has now been transformed into a large public bath where hundreds of people come every day to take a bathe and collect water. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)
In this Wednesday, April 3, 2019 photo, a man collects water from a stream that comes down from El Avila National Park in Caracas, Venezuela. The park's invasion by desperate Caracas residents alarms environmentalists who fear it will leave irreversible damage. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)
In this Wednesday, April 3, 2019 photo, a man collects water from a stream that comes down from El Avila National Park in Caracas, Venezuela. The park's invasion by desperate Caracas residents alarms environmentalists who fear it will leave irreversible damage. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)
Angel Sanchez bathes in one of the streams that comes down from El Avila National Park, during interruptions in running water in Caracas, Venezuela, Wednesday, April 3, 2019. The park's invasion by desperate Caracas residents alarms environmentalists who fear it will leave irreversible damage. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)
Angel Sanchez bathes in one of the streams that comes down from El Avila National Park, during interruptions in running water in Caracas, Venezuela, Wednesday, April 3, 2019. The park's invasion by desperate Caracas residents alarms environmentalists who fear it will leave irreversible damage. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)
In this Wednesday, April 3, 2019 photo, a stream comes down from El Avila National Park in Caracas, Venezuela. The national park spanning 315 square miles (81,800 hectares) has drawn of hundreds of visitors daily starting March 7 when a massive blackout hit nationwide, taking down with it water services. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)
In this Wednesday, April 3, 2019 photo, a stream comes down from El Avila National Park in Caracas, Venezuela. The national park spanning 315 square miles (81,800 hectares) has drawn of hundreds of visitors daily starting March 7 when a massive blackout hit nationwide, taking down with it water services. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)
In this Tuesday, April 2, 2019 photo, a woman fills containers with water collected from a stream that comes down from El Avila National Park in Caracas, Venezuela. It's become common to see hundreds of people carrying empty bottles, bath towels and laundry baskets deep into El Avila, tired of going without or standing in longs lines to take advantage of scarce supplies in town. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)
In this Tuesday, April 2, 2019 photo, a woman fills containers with water collected from a stream that comes down from El Avila National Park in Caracas, Venezuela. It's become common to see hundreds of people carrying empty bottles, bath towels and laundry baskets deep into El Avila, tired of going without or standing in longs lines to take advantage of scarce supplies in town. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)
In this Wednesday, April 3, 2019 photo, a girl attempts to carry two containers full of water collected from a stream that comes down from El Avila National Park in Caracas, Venezuela. Hundreds living in Caracas without running water each day hike from their homes up Avila's winding trails to bathe, wash clothes and collect water to carry home.(AP Photo/Fernando Llano)
In this Wednesday, April 3, 2019 photo, a girl attempts to carry two containers full of water collected from a stream that comes down from El Avila National Park in Caracas, Venezuela. Hundreds living in Caracas without running water each day hike from their homes up Avila's winding trails to bathe, wash clothes and collect water to carry home.(AP Photo/Fernando Llano)
In this Tuesday, April 2, 2019 photo, a woman bathes in one of the streams that comes down from El Avila National Park in Caracas, Venezuela. Generations living in Venezuela's capital have cherished Avila, a towering tree-covered mountain that breathes life into the crowded city below. This natural treasure has now been relegated, at a time of the country's deepening crisis, to an outdoor bathroom. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)
In this Tuesday, April 2, 2019 photo, a woman bathes in one of the streams that comes down from El Avila National Park in Caracas, Venezuela. Generations living in Venezuela's capital have cherished Avila, a towering tree-covered mountain that breathes life into the crowded city below. This natural treasure has now been relegated, at a time of the country's deepening crisis, to an outdoor bathroom. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)
In this March 18, 2019 photo, flames rise from El Avila National park in Caracas, Venezuela. The recent fires as well as the massive visits generated due to water scarcity have put El Ávila in a situation of
In this March 18, 2019 photo, flames rise from El Avila National park in Caracas, Venezuela. The recent fires as well as the massive visits generated due to water scarcity have put El Ávila in a situation of "high risk," said José Manuel Silva, director of Venezuela Verde, a charity dedicated to environmental protection. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)
In this Wednesday, April 3, 2019 photo, a man washes his car with water collected from a stream that comes down from El Avila National Park in Caracas, Venezuela. The park's invasion by desperate Caracas residents alarms environmentalists who fear it will leave irreversible damage. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)
In this Wednesday, April 3, 2019 photo, a man washes his car with water collected from a stream that comes down from El Avila National Park in Caracas, Venezuela. The park's invasion by desperate Caracas residents alarms environmentalists who fear it will leave irreversible damage. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)
In this Wednesday, April 3, 2019 photo, an abandoned bra lays on a rock near a stream that comes down from El Avila National Park in Caracas, Venezuela. Hundreds living in Caracas without running water are littering the park's slopes and creeks with shampoo and water bottles, food wrappers, cardboard and discarded clothes. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)
In this Wednesday, April 3, 2019 photo, an abandoned bra lays on a rock near a stream that comes down from El Avila National Park in Caracas, Venezuela. Hundreds living in Caracas without running water are littering the park's slopes and creeks with shampoo and water bottles, food wrappers, cardboard and discarded clothes. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)