Venezuela - Geography
Venezuela has a total area of 912,050 square kilometers (land: 882,050 square kilometers; water: 30,000 square kilometers), or more than twice the size of California. Venezuela’s borders total 4,993 kilometers, of which 2,200 kilometers adjoin Brazil; 2,050 kilometers, Colombia; and 743 kilometers, Guyana. Venezuela’s coastline totals 2,800 kilometers.
Venezuela has territorial disputes with both its western and eastern South American neighbors. Colombia and Venezuela dispute substantial maritime territory lying off the Guajira Peninsula and in the Golfo de Venezuela (Gulf of Venezuela). Although this dispute is being resolved through bilateral negotiations, elements of national prestige have made it a national issue in both countries in recent decades. Venezuela claims two-thirds of Guyana, or all of the 146,000-square-kilometer area lying west of the Essequibo, Guyana’s longest river, which runs north to the Atlantic Ocean and provides a natural dividing line through the small, English-speaking enclave. This claim precludes any discussion of a maritime boundary with Guyana. In October 1999, in response to Guyana’s granting of oil and mineral contracts to foreign companies to operate in the Essequibo region, Venezuela’s legislature voided the 1899 Tribunal of Arbitration Treaty that determined boundaries between the two countries.
Venezuela also has a territorial dispute with Dominica and its Eastern Caribbean neighbors—Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines—over Aves (Bird) Island, which is located 568 kilometers north of Venezuela and 113 kilometers west of Dominica. France, the Netherlands, and the United States recognize Venezuela’s claim that the 0.35-square-kilometer isle sustains human habitation and therefore creates a Venezuelan exclusive economic zone/continental shelf extending over a large portion of the Caribbean Sea.
Venezuela claims a 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone, a 12-nautical mile territorial sea, a 15-nautical mile contiguous zone, and jurisdiction over the continental shelf to a 200-meter depth or to the depth of resource exploitation.
The Orinoco and various mountain ranges divide the country into four distinct regions, with different climates: the dry, windless, and hot Maracaibo Lowlands in the far northwest; the northwestern Andean mountains and highlands stretching from southwest of the Maracaibo Basin across Northern Venezuela and including Pico Bolívar (La Columna), which is the highest point at 5,007 meters above sea level; the vast central Orinoco plains (llanos), located between the Merida Range and the Orinoco to the south and covering one-third of the country, much of it less than 50 meters in elevation; and the tropical Guiana Highlands in the southeast, with elevations of up to 3,500 meters. The world's highest waterfall, Angel Falls, is located in Venezuela’s Guiana Highlands, which comprise more than half of the area of the country. The wild and largely unexplored Guiana Highlands are rich in mineral resources and in developed and undeveloped hydroelectric power.
The Orinoco is by far the most important of the more than 1,000 rivers in the country. At between 2,140 and 2,500 kilometers, the Orinoco is the third-longest river in South America, after the Paraná (4,000 to 4,700 kilometers) and the Amazon (6,296 to 6,516 kilometers). The Orinoco originates in Venezuela’s remote southern Amazonas territory, at an elevation of 1,074 meters, and receives more than 2,000 tributaries—including the Apure, Arauca, Caroní, Caura, Guaviare, Meta, and Ventuari—during its northeastern course to the Atlantic, creating the Orinoco Delta region. The Orinoco has the third-largest drainage basin (1,086 square kilometers) in South America and, at 28,000 cubic meters per second, the fourth-highest water discharge in the world (after the Amazon’s 180,000; the Congo’s 42,000; and the Yangtze’s 35,000). Downstream from its headwaters, the Orinoco divides in two; one-third of its flow passes through the Brazo Casiquiare (Casiquiare Channel) into a tributary of the Amazon, and the remainder passes into the main Orinoco channel. Most of the rivers rising in the northern mountains flow southeastward to the Apure, which crosses the llanos in a generally eastward direction. The fast-flowing Caroní originates in the Guiana Highlands and flows northward into the Orinoco upstream from Ciudad Guyana.
Venezuela’s hydropower and mineral resources, including bauxite, coal, diamonds, gold, iron ore, natural gas, and petroleum, are vast. Its huge oil reserves, the largest in South America and the sixth largest in the world, ensure that the country will remain a major oil producer for at least the next 100 years. Venezuela has billions of barrels of extra-heavy crude oil and bitumen deposits, most of which are situated in the Orinoco Belt, located in Central Venezuela (estimates of recoverable reserves range from 100 to 270 billion barrels). The country’s largely untapped natural gas reserves, totaling 148 trillion cubic feet, are the second largest in the Western Hemisphere (behind the United States) and the eighth largest in the world. Venezuela also has vast forest reserves, although they are dwindling rapidly as a result of the constant expansion of cattle-grazing land.
Arable land constitutes 2.95 percent of the country’s area; permanent crops, 0.92 percent; and other, 96.13 percent. In 1998 an estimated total of 540 square kilometers were irrigated; 16.5 percent of cropland was irrigated in 1999. Approximately 10 million hectares of forest have been allocated for timber production.
Venezuela is subject to earthquakes, floods, rockslides, mudslides, and periodic droughts. It ranks among the top 10 of the world’s most ecologically diverse countries. However, it has suffered great environmental degradation. Venezuela has the third-highest deforestation rate in South America at 1.1 percent. The Guri dam, one of the world’s largest, flooded a massive forested area and is now being filled with silt deposited by runoff from deforested areas. Environmental issues include sewage pollution into Lago de Valencia, located not far to the west of Caracas; oil and urban pollution of Lago de Maracaibo, located in northwestern Zulia State; deforestation; soil degradation; and urban and industrial pollution, especially along the Caribbean coast. Current concerns also include irresponsible mining operations that endanger the rain-forest ecosystem and indigenous peoples. Successive governments have attempted to develop environmental regulations. However, only 35 percent to 40 percent of Venezuela's land is regulated thus far, 29 percent as part of about 100 national parks.
Located entirely within the tropics, Venezuela has a climate that is tropical, hot, and humid. The country has two distinct seasons: rainy (June–October) and dry (November–May). The rainy season is called invierno (winter), and the dry season, verano (summer). The wettest months are August–October, with an average rainfall of 145 millimeters; the driest months are January–April, with an average rainfall of 8 millimeters. The hottest months are May–September, averaging 18º C to 32º C; the coldest month is January, averaging 2º C to 13º C. However, temperatures vary according to elevation. Coastal and lowland areas are hot year-round; the highlands have a more moderate climate. With an elevation of about 1,000 meters above sea level, Caracas, situated in the Ávila Mountains, has an average temperature of 22° C, with little seasonal variation, but daytime highs can reach about 32° C.
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