The majority of the approximately 3 million inhabitants of Caracas are without drinking water this weekend, after several weeks of partial suspensions due to the maintenance work currently underway, state-run Hidrocapital said Saturday.

"The maintenance work being done on the principal pipelines of the Tuy II drinking water production system" is part of "the action being taken by the government to protect the supply...during this period of drought, which the El Niño phenomenon has intensified," the state company said in a statement.

The total suspension of the service in Caracas, and in the neighboring states of Vargas and Miranda, will continue until the early hours Sunday, the time required to repair and substitute valves and other electric and mechanical equipment, which for several weeks have been monitored to make sure no water is being wasted.

Venezuela largely depends on hydroelectric power, and the 18 principal dams that provide such energy are practically empty, "very close to the red line," Water Minister Ernesto Paiva said early this month.

Electric Power Minister Luis Motta for his part warned this Friday that without enough water savings nationwide "to help minimize the effect (of the El Niño phenomenon), we could have a total collapse of the electricity supply by the first weeks of April."

Guri Dam, the nation's largest, "is 75 percent empty, we just have 25 percent of the water," he said.

"What are we doing to diminish the effects El Niño has on the generation of hydroelectric power? Right now we're substituting incandescent light bulbs and air conditioners," he said.

During March, thermal power generation should increase at least 1,000 megawatts to avoid collapses, Motta said, adding that next Monday he will meet with officials from all the ministries to consider the eventual reduction of the work day.

On April 28 last year, the government reduced the work day because of the same problem amid a heat wave, which that month reached highs of up to 45 C (113 F), with a heat sensation close to 50 C (122 C).

Electric energy consumption then went from 16,000 to 18,300 megawatts, a hike in consumption that led the government to order private companies to make plans to generate electrical power with their own equipment, leaving the government to satisfy the needs of the nation's 30 million inhabitants.

The Venezuelan government said on that occasion that neighboring Colombia had twice the population and a generating capacity of some 14,000 megawatts, but thanks to a "consumer culture" that favors saving, it faced no major problems at that time. EFE