Published on The Water Blog

Laying the ground to achieve universal access to sanitation and preserving water quality in urban cities of Bolivia

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Child at public water station Child at public water station

The Global Water Security and Sanitation Partnership* supports Bolivia’s development of a national strategy for wastewater treatment and alternative approaches to close its large urban sanitation gap.

The relationship between climate change and water stress is having devastating results in Bolivia. The land-locked South American country is experiencing extreme droughts and floods. It has an abundant water supply, but most of it is far from the major urban centers, where 70% of Bolivia’s 12 million people currently live. Access to water is not the only challenge – water quality has also suffered due to mining, deforestation, and urbanization. From 2002 to 2020, the country lost 51% of its total tree cover.

Only 61 percent of the population had access to at least basic sanitation facilities in 2017, linked to low coverage in rural (36 percent) and urban (72 percent) areas.  The metropolitan area of Santa Cruz city, with nearly 2 million of inhabitants, is one of the fastest-growing cities in Latin America but nearly 50 percent of households rely on septic tanks, while in other city, Riberalta, 91 percent of the population relies on alternative sanitation systems such as latrines or septic tanks (World Bank, 2017). The lack of adequate infrastructure is creating multiple challenges, including health hazards due to overflowing septic tanks, and environmental risks, such as the contamination of groundwater aquifers.

In Bolivia, it is estimated that only 27 percent of wastewater is treated (WSP, 2016). Wastewater treatment facilities in cities like El Alto, Oruro, Cochabamba and Tarija need to be upgraded and expanded, whereas the capital city La Paz, with nearly 800,000 inhabitants, does not have a wastewater treatment plant. Instead, untreated wastewater is discharged into the Choqueyapu and La Paz Rivers – further increasing water pollution and putting human health at risk. Urban expansion has significantly increased domestic and industrial water demand in Bolivia, and untreated wastewater is frequently reused for irrigation with no regulation in water-scarce areas surrounding cities like La Paz, Cochabamba, and Tarija.

The Bolivian Ministry of Environment and Water is responsible for water and sanitation policies, standards, and budgeting. The municipal governments oversee direct service delivery or delegate it to other utilities and cooperatives. In Bolivia’s cities, 90% of households have piped water but rapid population growth in cities has made it difficult for the national government, municipalities, and service providers to provide sanitation through sewerage networks. 

After a 15-year gap, the World Bank and the Bolivian government renewed their relationship to address challenges in the water sector in 2016. Between 2017 and 2019, the GWSP supported three government priorities: ensure the sustainability of water supplies to build resilience to the impacts of climate change; treat and reuse wastewater to address water quality challenges; and learn from other Latin American countries to tackle critical water issues. These priorities fell under four World Bank loans for the water sector worth nearly $400 million. When the government shifted its focus from irrigation and rural water supply to urban water and sanitation, two of the projects were dropped. The remaining two projects are scheduled for approval in fiscal year 2022.

The GWSP and the German Agency for International Cooperation funded a fecal sludge management pilot in Santa Cruz to address the city’s wastewater management challenges.  The pilot focused on improving decentralized sanitation, aiming at strengthening the service chain for collecting, transporting, and treating fecal sludge. The pilot helped the municipal govern­ment develop protocols that improve the containment of fecal sludge through improvements to the maintenance of septic tanks and a certification program for septic tank construction. The initia­tive also worked on the development of operating procedures and training for small businesses working in fecal sludge management. The pilot informed the development of a Municipal Law on waste­water and fecal sludge management that was approved in 2019, and the update of administrative procedures to issue oper­ational environmental licenses for small businesses working in sanitation. The pilot also informed the development of Bolivia’s national strategy for wastewater treatment.

GWSP and the Government of Japan also co-funded several studies exploring the safe reuse of treated wastewater in agri­culture in La Paz, Cochabamba and Tarija cities, following the concept of a circular economy, informing the government’s national strategy on wastewater.

When government priorities shift, flexibility is key to achieving impact. The GWSP was able to change its funding strategy and adapt its activities while engaging the government with targeted support. At a household level, effectively managing fecal sludge requires strong collaboration and engagement with communities to build a sense of responsibility among all parties involved.

The GWSP’s support also showed that there is no single solution to urban sanitation challenges. Such complex issues need a diverse set of solutions that adapt to specific contexts.  The GWSP’s evidence-based technical assistance has focused on aligning diverse stakeholders around a common goal, leading to the creation of inclusive sanitation services in Santa Cruz and generating demand to replicate the work in other Bolivian cities.


  • The GWSP is a multi-donor fund within the World Bank that produces cutting-edge research and analytics to create and deliver urgent, practical, and innovative solutions.




Alfonso Alvestegui

Senior Water Supply & Sanitation Specialist, World Bank

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