Inequalities in urban water services are often perceived simplistically, according to a binary interpretation of “access/non-access,” with an end goal of making access to this public service universal. In other words, the issue has long been to ensure that all inhabitants enjoy access to water via a public service. This is all the more true in Bolivia, where water is considered as a “common good” subject to a principle of “non-commodification,” written in the country’s constitution since 2009. But the 2016 water crisis in La Paz has highlighted a new type of inequality in terms of water-supply service. During that drought episode, it was the inhabitants of the neighborhoods in the southern part of La Paz, where people from the middle and upper classes live, who were more exposed to the weakness of the main system of water access and who were deprived of water service. This shows one of the many possible variations in inequality in urban water services, the analysis of which requires going beyond just the question of technical access to the network.

In 2015, the level of access to “improved” water services in Bolivian cities was 97%, while that of wastewater treatment services was limited to 61%. Beyond these general data, the available data on the rates of access to water-supply services does not necessarily reveal other types of urban inequality related to water. Such inequality concerns not just technical access to the network, which, incidentally, is easily recognizable on a servicing map.

They also involve, for example, the question of inequality linked to payment for the service. This type of data is more difficult to obtain, because it is linked to household composition, usage practices, consumption level, and of course income. Another type of inequality arises from the nature of the service provider. The public water service is not the only form of provision of service in cities: there are also small socio-technical systems decentralized at the neighborhood level, which sometimes substitute for the main system or provide supplementary service. They generally offer basic service of acceptable quality and with lower rates, but require active participation by users in collective maintenance work. In addition, a new aspect of inequality is related to the location of some households more exposed than others to the weakness of the main system. This phenomenon was clearly seen during the 2016 water crisis in La Paz, whose southern neighborhoods were deprived of water service for several weeks. Other factors of inequality can be identified, such as the political tendency or social-mobilization capacity of some networks. These factors can sometimes act as real comparative advantages that can sometimes constitute real comparative advantages in the priorities of access to water services and sanitation.

This project is part of the first phase of the Research Facility on Inequalities, coordinated by AFD and funded by the European Commission's Directorate-General for International Partnerships over the 2017-2020 period. The first phase of the Facility has led to the conduct of 22 research projects and the publication of around 100 research papers and policy briefs.


This research project is being led by a multidisciplinary team under the coordination of CIDES-UMSA. It seeks to examine and analyze the various types of inequality linked to water and sanitation services in La Paz-El Alto, as well as their trends in recent years, above and beyond the typical determinants such as income (vertical inequalities) and localization (spatial inequalities). In fact, the researchers are also interested in other, less-studied types of determinants, such as exposure to climate change, social representations, and political resources, all of which can affect social cohesion. The objective is to obtain a new interpretation of urban inequalities in La Paz-El Alto, in order to fuel dialog with municipal and sectoral authorities.

This project also seeks to support Bolivian research, through training, methodology workshops, and participation in international conferences, etc.


This research project follows a multi-disciplinary and multi-theme approach that combines qualitative field surveys covering different areas of the two cities, on key subjects related to i) inequality in water services (trends in services on the urban fringe, small-scale systems, socio-political resources in neighborhoods, shared uses of water in the city, etc.), ii) historical analyses (how inequality in the services started), and iii) statistical analyses. The approach also involves working in connection with the municipal research services. The results from these different surveys and analyses will be discussed regularly at workshops for sharing experiences.


Find the presentation of the research paper “Inequalities related to urban water services in La Paz-El Alto, Bolivia” by Sarah Botton (AFD research officer) and Patricia Urquieta (CIDES-UMSA researcher) during the third webinar of the Research Facility on Inequalities:

replay webinaire 3

You may find the research papers linked to this project here:

You may find the policy briefs here:

Project start date
Project end date
1 year and 4 months
Duration of the program
110 000
Financing amount


The content of this project information sheet falls under the sole responsibility of the AFD and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the European Union.