Marginal urban populations

Developing water supply and sanitation services in La Paz and El Alto, Bolivia




The El Alto Pilot Project - or Peri-Urban Initiative for Water and Sanitation (IPAS) - was principally a partnership between the following actors:


  • Private concessionaire Aguas del Illimani (or AdI and its parent company, Ondeo, formerly Suez-Lyonnaise des Eaux)
  • The Government (Ministry of Housing and Basic Services and the Municipalities of La Paz and El Alto)
  • The Superintendencia de Aguas (a national regulatory body)
  • International donor agencies (Water and Sanitation Program and the Swedish International Development Agency).


Project description


The project included the following elements:

i] Ethnographic research (aimed at establishing a framework for understanding the behaviour of inhabitants of low-income neighbourhoodsn in relation to water services)

ii] Research on appropriate technology (the condominial system*)

iii] Technological implementation (including consultation with beneficiary communities, preliminary design, construction plus supervision, usage and maintenance training)

iv] Monitoring and systematisation of implementation

v] Institutionalisation (the development of a new set of standards and regulations for approval by the Ministry of Housing and Basic Services)


*In Condominial systems, one network runs through the whole block, with a communal connection to the main network. This means smaller pipe diameters, fewer pipes and shallower trenches, whilst maintenance is assumed to be the responsibility of individual households.




In 1997 the Superintendencia de Aguas was established to grant and regulate water and sanitation concessions and approve water tariffs, removing provision from municipal control. The concession process was designed to ensure the maximum service expansion to low-income households. The only bidder, SLdE-AdI, submitted an ambitious bid, committing to achieve 100% water coverage in La Paz and to install 71,752 new water connections in El Alto (along with bold sanitation targets). The El Alto Pilot project was launched in February 1998 by the WSP and SIDA, with AdI joining shortly after the concession had been awarded.


At the time, Bolivia was facing an ongoing economic crisis and political unrest. Systematised devaluation of the peso led to significant dollar-linked tariff rate increases. Protests forced the termination of the concession in Cochabamba. Civic protests were also frequent in La Paz and El Alto, over various issues relating to municipal services (electricity, water, police protection, etc.).


Project beneficiaries


At the time of the project (2001), El Alto was the significantly poorer of the two adjacent cities, and the target population for the pilot projects were largely rural Aymara migrants, who have a strong cultural and social identity. Fejuves (neighbourhood associations) represented the many Juntas Vecinales (neighbourhood committees - more than 385 within El Alto), but as these were highly politicised, community representation was not straightforward. Average family incomes were as low as $120/month and many people commuted into La Paz for work.  This fact and cultural customs kept water consumption low.


Objectives and partnership structures


The short-term pilot project's objective was to provide water and sanitation connections to 5,000 poor households. The long-term aim was to identify and test innovative, affordable (and replicable) solutions for service provision to the poor. The pilot was guided by a Steering Committee and Technical Committee.


Roles and responsibilities


AdI was in charge of infrastructure expansion and financed the social intervention components of the pilot. The Ministry of Basic Services and Housing initiated and supported the project - its role was to assess the potential replicability in other Bolivian cities. SIDA funded the position of an expert in the condominial system. WSP provided technical assistance, institutional strengthening and documentation, and overall monitoring of the project. The Municipalities of La Paz and El Alto oversaw technical implementation and ensured compliance with building standards. Microcredit agencies provided micro-credit to finance connections and internal installation. The Juntas Vecinales played a role in choosing their own technical and financing options. The national regulator oversaw the whole concession arrangement and made recommendations on adjustments to standards and norms.


Community liaison


The condominial system requires that households are actively involved in the maintenance of the system - community engagement and participatory planning are thus key elements in project development. The operator developed an integrated community scheme, the Plan Comunidad, with two main features: hygiene education and a micro-credit component to pay for internal plumbing fixtures. A further objective was to increase water usage as low volumes and an uneconomic lifeline tariff made cost recovery difficult. Early on, AdI established field offices in each of the pilot neighbourhoods, providing a direct channel for community members to ask questions, raise grievances etc. This direct relationship was invaluable in setting the tone with communities. Given their significant experience in working with communities and the expense of establishing offices in pilot areas, relationships with new communities were less intensive - communities were not directly represented on the Steering and Technical committees.


Communications and feedback


Partner communications were mostly via the Technical Committee. As mentioned, WSP took the lead in monitoring and thus feedback.


Evolution and institutionalisation


Community liaison evolved - the difficulty in finding an NGO partner led to the company working directly with communities, where it learned to adopt an increasingly participatory approach. Early on, AdI set up a special pilot project office, which became increasingly mainstreamed - to the extent that AdI were seeking to replicate the approach throughout the concession.




By June 2000, over 5,000 condominial connections had been installed. However, lower than expected cost recovery (whether due to tariff levels or otherwise) raised some questions for the future.




  • Attainment of targets
  • Strong institutional structures
  • Good forum for consensus building
  • Significant commitments by key stakeholders
  • High international profile
  • Close co-operation of public and private sectors
  • Inclusion of regulator
  • Explicit consideration given to replication
  • Strong community participation
  • Strong donor support
  • Good documentation and lesson learning
  • Incorporation of M&E element


Wider lessons


  • Importance of facilitator role
  • How community can be incorporated into project
  • Potential for direct community/company relationship (especially when NGO lacking)
  • Difficulty of defining appropriate civil society partners
  • Communication channels between different stakeholders must remain clear
  • Regular update and clarification of expectations is useful
  • Importance of ongoing commitment to private sector participation (and potential for disruption where absent)
  • Issues related to both exclusivity and universal service obligations and how these may impact incentives
  • How overall incentive structures within contracts can affect partnership and project.