The scarce rainfall registered first in agricultural areas, where vegetable and fruit growers watched their irrigation ponds dry up and their customers at farmers’ markets grumbled about undersized apples and pears.
Vázquez initiated the first phase of the conservation measures on April 14, banning outdoor entertainment at night and instructing public agencies to cut energy consumption by five percent.
In all, Uruguay received 3.3 inches of rain from March 1 through May 10, 4.4 inches below average, according to the National Institute of Agricultural Research. It rained less than an inch last month, and there has been no significant rainfall in May.
That has so slowed the Río Uruguay, on the western border, and the Río Negro, in the center of the country, that Uruguay’s four hydroelectric plants are almost completely disabled. In the Río Negro, the government is preserving what little water remains at the dam for the winter months. On the Río Uruguay, the largest dam, by the city of Salto, is operating at 20 percent of capacity and the energy it produces is shared with Argentina.
Normally, the dams are the pride of Uruguay, producing 80 percent of the country’s energy needs, according to government statistics. Last winter, they satisfied all domestic demand, idling the costly oil-fired plants in Montevideo.
Now, those plants are burning imported oil day and night to feed the grid, draining the government treasury. The state energy company, UTE, already has spent more than $300 million in 2008, after budgeting $340 million for the entire year.
The price of the oil UTE buys, though heavily subsidized to forestall electricity rate hikes, recently jumped by 5 percent. It has almost doubled in the past two years, although that increase has not been passed along to customers.
Even operating at capacity, Uruguay’s power generators are falling short. With no domestic oil or natural gas, the country is now at the mercy of Argentina and Brazil to provide electricity because the oil-fired plants in Uruguay are already operating at capacity.
”If it rains, we’re independent,” said Magdalena Marinoni, one of three members of a government commission implementing the president’s energy saving plan. “If it doesn’t, we’re not.”