Bolivia looks to improve its air quality

Bolivia’s cities suffer from severe air pollution. A Swiss project entitled Aire Limpio is helping to improve their air quality. Empa is also on board, readily passing on its expertise in the field of air measuring technology and air quality control.

In the last decade, the number of cars on Bolivia’s roads has tripled. The enormous amount of traffic in cities like La Paz is the main culprit behind the high air pollution levels. Measurements revealed that the concentration of pollutants in Bolivia’s cities often exceeds the limits set by the World Health Organization (WHO). Bolivians are aware of this thanks to a project entitled Aire Limpio (i.e. "clean air" - the goal of the program).
Funded by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), the project was launched back in 2003, when measuring equipment was set up at various urban locations all over Bolivia. This measuring network was dubbed Red Monica and yields valuable data. Keeping it running around the clock while maintaining the quality of the readings, however, is a major challenge. Consequently, the two Empa researchers Martin Steinbacher and Julien Anet, who are both highly experienced in air quality measurements, traveled to La Paz in mid-October 2015.

In the metropolis 3,500 meters above sea level, one of the highest cities in the world, the two experts showed the Red Monica staff how to repair a measuring device. "The way the equipment works isn’t so straightforward," says Steinbacher. "If there’s something wrong with my car, I take it to a mechanic at the nearest garage. But our Bolivian colleagues don’t have that luxury as there aren’t any service technicians in the country." As a result, the Empa scientists trained the Red Monica crew, coordinated by MeteoSchweiz in collaboration with the CATCOS project (Capacity Building and Twinning for Climate Observing Systems), to enable them to work more independently in future.
The Bolivians also have to calibrate the highly sensitive measuring devices themselves. "It’s a bit like testing bathroom scales," says Steinbacher. "You take a 50-kilo sack, stand on the scales and check whether the weight increases accordingly." In air measuring technology, a gas sample with a known concentration of air pollutants is used instead of a sack.
Besides the practical workings of the equipment, handling the data was also a central aspect of the course. The two Empa researchers showed the participants how to develop suitable computer programs. "They were incredibly motivated," says Steinbacher. "At long last, they had someone who could answer their questions."
The keen interest wasn’t just limited to Red Monica staff, either. The Empa experts even welcomed the minister of the environment and organized a press conference especially. This went down extremely well with the Bolivian media, as reflected in numerous articles in the local press.

Under the Aire Limpio project, air pollutants have been gaged for over a decade. And the readings have evidently raised awareness among the population, too: Despite the huge increase in the number of vehicles, the pollutant concentrations have only increased moderately. This is largely because Bolivia has now introduced a vehicle inspection program to remove the worst polluters from the roads. Moreover, considerable investments have been made in public transport: Three cable car lines have already been constructed to connect various parts of the city and an increasing number of buses have been purchased - for Steinbacher, a very promising development.