© Helvetas

Enhancing Waste Management System in Urban Areas of Bolivia

FROM: Martín Del Castillo, Zenebe B. Uraguchi – 10. June 2017
© Helvetas

This is the second blog on sustainable waste management in urban areas. In the first blog, we wrote about Albania and in this second blog, we tell the story from Bolivia. For the last 30 years, Bolivia has experienced a fast growing urban population – from 30% in 1976 to 70% in 2012. Most people live in few major cities and small urban-rural towns. This brings up new challenges or worsens existing ones, mainly in providing efficient and effective services like solid waste management and wastewater treatment. The infrastructure and services are either absent or are of low quality, causing soil, water and air pollution and health problems. Often climate change and disaster, particularly flooding and landslides, cause damages to solid waste management landfills and wastewater treatment plants, making service provision more difficult.

Understanding root causes

Environmentally sustainable and resource-efficient service is difficult to achieve without a well-functioning solid waste management and wastewater treatment. The Municipal Environmental Management project in Bolivia was designed to improve the health of particularly the most vulnerable groups in urban areas through better and environmentally sustainable provision of services. Before coming up with solutions, the project conducted assessments in four geographical areas that have different characteristics: Chaco, a lowland with very high temperatures; Cochabamba and Potosí very dry areas with some valleys; dry and high region near Titicaca Lake.

The lack of services (e.g. water, sewerage and waste collection) or their low qualities were considered as main reasons, including worn-out and poorly maintained infrastructure; lack of financial resources; low capacities of service providers; and lack of coordination between public and private sector actors. However, with a closer investigation, the project came to the conclusion that the underperformance of service provision was due to weakness in functions related to the waste management service sector. For example, maintenance and operation of service were deficient, which regularly generated environmental risks like water and soil contamination, raw or contaminated water for irrigation.

Solid waste management and wastewater treatment was also not the priority of government agencies, often leading to the recollection and transportation of waste, and in the best cases also the final deposition of waste in “controlled” waste dumps which contain many technical and environmental defects. Communication and environmental education initiatives, which are crucial for changing the behaviour of users, were rare. All these led to gaps in access to decent, functioning sanitation which are clear markers of inequality and disadvantage to users and their environment in urban areas.

What was done?

The Municipal Environmental Management project sought to improve the inadequacy of environmental management services by supporting actors’ capacities to enhance their performance. It also facilitated public-private coordination in environmental management that potentially enhances investment and creates urban spaces more amenable to dwellers. Achieving better results required for the project to focus on ensuring sustainable services that are matched by ways of keeping valuable resources available for productive use. The services aim at contributing to the wellbeing of residents and broader sustainability of resource use.

The project also recognised that strategies for planning and implementing solid waste and wastewater treatment are evolving, which required being demand-driven by users. A multi-stakeholder engagement was therefore important from the outset. Often, solid waste management and wastewater treatment services fail because of top-down, technocratic approaches to planning. The project attempted to promote a participatory approach, in particular by stimulating local institutions and front-end users as key stakeholders in the planning process. Indeed, the “do-no-harm” principle, for example in avoiding the reduction of organic and suspended solids to limit pollution to the environment, was at the heart of the project’s intervention. The project paid closer attention to environmentally responsible services by enhancing their “eco-friendliness”. This called for improving institutional arrangements for solid waste management and wastewater treatment by supporting agencies involved in various aspects of the services, including interagency coordination, procedures and methods, capacity and private sector involvement.

Recently, the project started facilitating reuse of “waste” materials as a resource rather than a refuse. For this, the project uses the “risk-attitude-norm-ability” (RANAS) methodology to know how improvement in services leads to behavioural changes of users. Specific behavioural changes include separation and reuse of solid waste in households; adequate use of sewerage (for a longer system life); and fair payment for the services of sanitation and solid waste management.

Were there positive changes?

At this early stage of the project (in the middle of the first operational phase), some interesting improvements have been observed.

Quality of services: solid waste management services have improved in the three municipalities of Villazón, Villamontes and Tolata. Street cleaning is more efficient (improved routeing and general logistics); more people now know where to go or whom to ask about the service, and the information provided is easy to understand. In Villamontes and Villazón, waste has been diverted from open dumpsites to sanitary landfills, strongly reducing contamination. The municipalities’ technicians (and authorities) benefit from the improved service by making better decisions (e.g. accurate planning).

Improved practices for stimulating further changes: the municipality of Cliza has become a national reference in three main topics of wastewater treatment: technology, water reuse and operation and maintenance. The waste water treatment plant is a decentralised, robust and highly efficient system, particularly in comparison with the large and inefficient oxidation ponds found in the majority of Bolivia’s municipalities. The plant’s operation and maintenance is guaranteed and costs are included in the service budget of the municipality.

Users’ behaviour: currently all regional partners have sufficient information on factors that determine changes in specific behaviour of users, such as separation of waste at home or reuse of solid waste. Using this as a good start, the project has developed strategies for mobilisation or sensitisation programmes at schools, as well as the use of local media, fairs and other information channels. The project foresees that results in users’ behaviours will be available in 2018.

Increase public sector engagement and commitment: the project has secured the commitment from municipalities to cover at least 50% of the whole investments budget, which is about 3.5 million Swiss Franc. This is shared among the different levels of state, especially at national and municipal levels. The project is also supporting local regulation of the national solid waste management law. The law is expected to cover around 20 municipalities with its specific regulations by the end of 2017.

Environmental sustainability: although it is very difficult to assess the change at this stage, the project has developed a tool that allows municipalities to calculate greenhouse gases produced from wastewater treatment and solid waste management. The idea is to have three different scenarios: business as usual, national agenda (emphasis in new final disposals installations), and low carbon development path, and to compare with action that are implemented (e.g. organic waste separation and reuse). With this tool, it is possible to measure the actual sectoral contributions to greenhouse gases production in 20 middle-sized and small municipalities, as well as to monitor the impact of improved services on greenhouse gas emissions.

Key takeaways

  • Careful assessment and improved designing of interventions enhances sustainability of services as well as improvement of urban environmental management through organised waste collection and reduced water pollution.
  • Successful interventions in wastewater treatment and solid waste management will require a shift from an “infrastructure based approach” to a “comprehensive” and “sustainable” based approach.
  • Local environmental management (efficient and tailor made actions) is not possible without social co-responsibility – this means the sharing of responsibilities in environmentally sustainable wastewater treatment and solid waste management among users, public agencies, private sector enterprises and society as a whole.
  • The project developed its intervention for shifting the behaviour and practices of users such that the expected change lasts beyond the lifespan of the project. Solid waste management and wastewater treatment services can be sustainable if services are accessible, quality and affordable in meeting the demands of users (e.g. households solid waste separation and reuse, adequate use of sewerage and fair tariffs).


Additional sources

Programme Manager, East Europe, South Caucuses & Western Balkans; Senior Advisor, Sustainable & Inclusive Economies

Martín del Castillo is Deputy in Helvetas Swiss Intercooperation in Bolivia and Coordinator of the Local Environmental Management Project. Has more than 15 years of experience on issues related to governance such as public management, advocacy and decentralisation, and studies in public management, development, economy and political science.

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