The Journey and Key Achievements of Aire Limpio

The Aire Limpio (Clean Air) Project contributed to the protection of Bolivia’s population, as well as the environment against the effects of air pollution. The results: CO2 emissions have decreased by 370,000 tonnes, and 12 Bolivian cities have designed sustainable mobility plans and are currently implementing them. Aside from this, a national air quality measurement network has been installed. The Aire Limpio project was an SDC project and implemented by Swisscontact from 2003 until 2018.
Las Paz, Bolivia
Durée du projet
2010 - 2017
Financé par
  • Direction du développement et de la coopération DDC

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.

Aire Limpio - Full Report
Key Achievements
  • 12 municipal Air Quality Monitoring networks created and strengthened with equipment, training and advice.
  • A National Air Quality Reference Laboratory created and strengthened at the Universidad Mayor de San Andrés. It provides training, generates postgraduate courses and monitors the quality of the monitoring networks' operation.
  • National Air Quality Programme created in the Ministry of Environment and Water. It has, thus far, published five National Air Quality Reports with data received from monitoring networks.
  • Four Technical Vehicle Inspection Centres have been implemented in four cities in Bolivia and two more are under construction.
  • The General Transport Law No. 165 mandates the implementation of the National Technical Vehicle Inspection System and incorporates the entire vision of sustainable urban mobility.
  • Six municipalities now have Municipal Urban Mobility Laws.
  • Four municipalities have created their Urban Mobility Secretariats.
  • Nine municipal transport programmes have been developed.
  • La Paz has established the Municipal Transport Service "La Paz Bus - Puma Katari" with six routes in operation and a target for 2020 of 20 routes (40 million trips until December 2017).
  • The National Government has created the National Cable Car Company "Mi Teleférico", which to date, has carried 100 million passengers.
  • El Alto has implemented the "Wayna Bus" municipal transport service with two routes in operation.
  • Integration of La Paz Bus with the cable transport system has been achieved.
  • Cochabamba has already built 10 km of urban bicycle lanes, with a goal of 100 km by 2020.
  • In 14 years, the project has achieved a reduction of 370,000 tonnes of CO2 in the different projects implemented.
Approach and Activities

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.

Redefining the Path and Changing the Paradigm

Over the years, the Aire Limpio team carried out various activities, which can be categorised as followed: 

  1. Raising awareness and educating the population through public campaigns; lobbying with key sectors of government and municipalities; conducting citizens’ perception surveys on air quality and promoting the initiative of the urban mobility programme, which changed the emphasis from ‘roads for vehicles’ to ‘roads for people’.
  2. A clear and effective communication strategy was established to create awareness on legal issues and put them on the political agenda; to disseminate the results of air quality monitoring and greenhouse gas emission controls; to publish surveys, articles and reports and lobby at national and municipal level to underline the importance of clean air and have the authorities take ownership of the initiative.
  3. Emphasis was placed on promoting and using appropriate scientific methods and technologies to establish Air Quality Monitoring Networks, Technical Vehicle Revision Centres and gasoline to natural gas conversion centres. Public transport master plans were drawn up and epidemiological surveys were carried out. The issue of clean air was included in university curriculums.
  4. An important element of the project was its focus on institutional strengthening. Capacity building workshops were implemented and peer exchanges and international conferences were held so that technical personnel involved in the project could have the best training possible, enabling them to carry out their work successfully. The appropriate technical infrastructure was also established to make measurements of air quality and vehicle emissions possible. Another important element was the support given to the government in the formulation of an adequate legal framework to improve air quality and establish limits to pollution.

The Role of Politics in Aire Limpio

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.

  • Ministry of Environment and Water, Vice Ministry of Environment, Biodiversity, Climate Changes and Forest Management and Development
  • Ministry of Public Works, Services and Housing, Vice Ministry of Transport
  • Autonomous Municipal Governments of Santa Cruz, Cochabamba, La Paz, El Alto, Oruro, Potosí, Sucre, Tarija, Trinidad, Tiquipaya, Sacaba and Quillacollo
  • Autonomous Departmental Government of Cochabamba
  • Universidad Mayor de San Andrés – UMSA
  • Universidad Mayor de San Simón – UMSS
  • Universidad Católica Boliviana – Regional Campus La Paz
Urban Mobility
Urban mobility is a new paradigm in the development of cities. The traditional concept of transport focuses on the movement of vehicles, therefore its approach aims at improving traffic flow. Whereas, mobility aims at moving people, regardless of which method of transport. Overall efficiency, effectiveness and sustainability is taken into account in this instance.
Air quality monitoring
Monitoring air quality is the basis for air quality management. It helps to scientifically establish the pollution levels and their impact upon the population’s health and that of the environment.
Technical vehicle inspection
Periodic vehicle inspections are the best way to control technical and environmental conditions of motorised vehicles. These are carried out in specialised centres, with electromechanical equipment that scientifically simulate and give diagnostics on the vehicles.
Outlook: the point of no return
In the 15 years of the project's life, important improvements were made, which can no longer be rolled back:
10 Lessons learnt
During the project’s 15 years, Swisscontact team members were able to gain vast knowledge and experience. These are the most important lessons learnt which can be implemented in similar projects to come: