Water is one of the most abundant commodities of man and occupies about 70% of the earth’s surface, yet a greater percentage of the world’s population live without access to safe drinking water, especially in the developing countries. The importance of good quality drinking water cannot be overemphasized. In many developing countries, availability of water has become a critical and urgent problem and it is a matter of great concern to families and communities depending on non-public water supply system.
The provision of portable water to the rural and urban population is necessary to prevent health hazards. Unsafe water is a global public health threat, placing persons at risk for a host of diseases as well as chemical intoxication. It has been reported that more than two million persons, mostly children less than five years of age, die of diarrheal diseases and according to the WHO (2004), nearly 90% of diarrhea-related deaths have been attributed to unsafe or inadequate water supplies and sanitation. The WHO estimated in 2006 that 1.1 billion persons lack access to clean water.
What Exactly is ‘Pure Water’?
Nigeria is located in coastal West Africa where water is abundant, yet most of the population lacks adequate and safe drinking water. As a result, individuals who can afford it now sink boreholes and sell water, without any major form of treatment, to the ever-growing population. Many individuals and corporate bodies in Nigeria now engage in packaging water in polyethene sachets of about 50-60cl popularly called ‘pure water’ which they sell to the public. Thus, drinking water is commercially available in such easy-to-open sachets. The production, marketing and consumption of sachet water have increased tremendously. There are now several brands of this sachet water marketed in Nigeria and other developing countries.
Why Should We Be Concerned?
In Nigeria, public drinking water supply is unreliable thereby encouraging the sale of drinking water in polyethene sachets due to its availability and affordability. However, there is concern about the purity of water in sachets. The integrity of the environment and the conditions under which the majority of the sachets are produced are questionable because many who are engaged in its production do not adhere to the standards set by WHO (2006) and the Federal Environmental Protection Agency, FEPA (1999). Good quality water is supposed to be colorless, odorless, and tasteless as well as being free from microbial and chemical contaminants. Majority of the consumers tend to be more concerned with the appearance and taste of water than the invisible load of potentially harmful microorganisms as well as other contaminants that may be present in the water.
In recent years and in the past, lots of researches have been carried out in various parts of the country to determine the purity of sachet water, and most of the results point towards the same conclusion: that our so called ‘pure water’ may not be completely safe for drinking. The results of most of the studies on sachet water to determine purity and safety have almost always churned up evidence of microbial and in some cases chemical contaminants.
The National Agency for Food Administration and Control (NAFDAC) is an agency of the Nigerian government charged with regulating the manufacture and sale of food, drugs and cosmetics in the country and by extension, has oversight of the packaged water industry. NAFDAC itself has been criticized for failing to adequately police the industry. Some companies are known to submit fake samples in order to pass NAFDAC tests and gain a registration number, but then sell untreated tap water labeled as pure. Other companies merely imprint an entirely fake NAFDAC number on their packaging. Another area which NAFDAC has also neglected is the channel of distribution of the sachet water. There is evidence that this sachet water get contaminated after leaving production sites while in the hands of distributors, and vendors/hawkers due to poor handling and storage.
The Way Forward
A lot has been said but not much has been done about the quality of the sachet water in distribution in developing countries. Some have proposed a total ban on sachet water, but proponents of this idea have to consider the institutional inadequacies in public water supply and the huge economic benefits of sachet water. However, activities of regulatory agencies should be intensified to ensure compliance with standards. Regulatory activities that promote core hygiene values (e.g., hand washing, general cleanliness of storage environment and vendor containers) and a proper handling culture could produce the desired improvements. The focus has to shift from just the monitoring of the end-product as this does not always give a complete picture in terms of microbiological risk assessment. The distribution methods and channels need also come under the radar. There is also need for public sensitization and monitoring/regulating of sachet water vendors.