Latin America presents the highest urbanisation rates globally: about 80% of its population live in urban areas and two thirds in cities of 200 000 or more inhabitants (CEPAL). In Latin American cities, air pollution is a critical problem. The emission of particulate matter and toxic gases have increasingly deteriorated the air quality in the last decades.
This is also the case in Bolivia. The accelerated growth of the urban centres goes hand in hand with an increase in motor vehicles. Since the beginning of this century, Bolivia has tripled its automobile fleet, thus increasing not only the atmospheric pollution but also the number of traffic accidents and wasted time in traffic congestions–all contributing to a decrease in the quality of life for the country’s inhabitants.
It is estimated that 80% of air pollution comes from vehicle emissions. As mentioned, most cars in Bolivia are over 16 years old and are purchased from second-hand markets. To date were not required to pass any safety tests or gas emission regulations.
In the 1990s, the government deregulated the public transport sector and started subsidising fuels, which caused the proliferation of private transport companies that then engaged in a fierce competition called "the penny war" to attract customers, offering the cheapest prices possible for their services. This meant that vehicles were not adequately maintained, emissions were high, safety was low and traffic congestion got worse. Pollution levels also increased and there were more accidents reported every year.
Poor air quality in urban areas is a public health problem caused mainly by the emission of air pollutants from the transport sector. In Bolivia, the vehicle fleet has seen exponential growth. From less than half a million vehicles in 2003 to close to 2 million in 2018. This, together with a lack of environmental regulations to remove old vehicles from circulation, has led the country to have one of the oldest and most heavily polluting vehicle fleets in the region.
Aire Limpio with its four phases (2003 - 2018) has been a long-term project that assisted Bolivia, through the Vice-Ministries of Environment and Transport and local governments, to implement air quality management systems and to improve urban mobility. The results were only achieved due to the fact that it was understood that these processes take time as well as a very strong sense of awareness of the risks and problems caused by air pollution and traffic congestion.
The most significant contribution of the Aire Limpio Project has been the establishment of a clear plan for the country; to improve air quality through the improvement of urban mobility systems. The implementation of the first quality and clean public transport projects such as cable cars and municipal bus systems marked a turning point in the history of urban transport in Bolivia.
With Aire Limpio, Swisscontact’s role was to facilitate processes and provide technical assistance, target different main actors, and the implementation of measures aimed at reducing atmospheric pollution in the cities of Bolivia.
The activities focused on supporting municipalities and the national government in completing the legal framework related to air quality, gradually implementing technical vehicle inspection and modernising urban mobility. Aire Limpio also provided technical assistance to the public and the private sectors to implement air pollution reduction and prevention measures. This systemic approach does not produce any dependency and allowed the project to leave installed capacities and exit the system once it was functioning adequately.
Breaking the Inertia
In 2002, SDC in Bolivia together with Swisscontact, assessed the situation and initiated the Aire Limpio Project. Its first phase was developed to create awareness, set up a national system of municipal networks to monitor the air quality and vehicle emissions (in order to have a baseline from which they could effectively start to reduce air pollution) and work with the local authorities to tackle the problem. Initially, the cities targeted by the project were El Alto, La Paz, Cochabamba and Santa Cruz. Aire Limpio also established links with similar initiatives that were being developed in Peru and Ecuador to exchange experiences, facilitate learnings and promote regional synergies.
Over the years, the Aire Limpio team carried out various activities, which can be categorised as followed:
The Aire Limpio Project is not just technical in nature. Due to transportation and health issues being highly sensitive, it is political too. At the beginning of the project there was resistance from some political sectors, as well as from the transport unions. Ultimately, positions and perceptions shifted and the mayors and the central government entities gradually got on board. An example is the Ministry of Environment and Water, which became the most important counterpart of the project so far. We must also highlight the active role of the mayors who supported the project, bought into it and endorsed it.