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Consuming Water At Your Own Risk

By Fabian Odum
05 April 2015   |   8:20 am
Malams, local diggers of shallow wells, also called Konga are also not in lack of business especially in the city’s suburbs, where a budget of between N50,000 – N70,000 secures ground water at very superficial level. This story is replicated across the country.
Provision of potable water remains a national challenge

Provision of potable water remains a national challenge

IN Lagos, the burgeoning megacity of more than 15million people, access to potable water remains a challenge all year round. Water borehole engineers and technicians are in brisk business, charging an average of N150,000 to sink one depending on the topography of the area.

Malams, local diggers of shallow wells, also called Konga are also not in lack of business especially in the city’s suburbs, where a budget of between N50,000 – N70,000 secures ground water at very superficial level. This story is replicated across the country.

These desperate attempts by citizens to access water shows acute shortage of even raw untreated water and the luxury of treated potable water in Nigeria and its attendant health risk. These boreholes and Konga are usually dug sometimes navigating through a maze of PVC pipes conveying human waste to shallow septic tanks.

Water vendors are still a common feature in towns and cities nationwide.

Nigeria’s Water Resources Minister, Mrs. Sarah Ochekpe revealed that the current water supply service coverage in the country is 58 per cent, which is about 87 million people. This translates to lack of potable water for about 70 million people. She added that in the rural areas, only 42 per cent have access to potable water supply.

Driving home the health implication, She said: “Many of our children are also dying of diseases associated with water borne infections.” The health challenge does not only trouble children; adults are also not exempted.

Clearly, meeting Nigeria’s Millennium Development Goal (MDG) target for water supply by 2015 is already unattainable. Of the estimated annual investment of N215 billion the country needs to make clean water available, Nigeria is currently investing about N82.5 billion in the sector (private and public).

Aside the potable water shortages, the most pressing need is the health risk to the consumers of unsafe water. For instance, a UNICEF report says “The third biggest killer of children under the age of five in Africa is diarrhea, a disease that can – in nine out of 10 cases – be prevented by access to safe water and sanitation. Nigeria accounts for 11 per cent of all global under-five deaths.”

Making available safe drinking water is a basic human right essential to health. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), while safe drinking water does not represent any significant risk to health over a lifetime of consumption, those at greatest risk of waterborne disease are infants and young children, as well as the elderly living under unsanitary conditions.

However, it stated “Water of higher quality may be required for some special purposes, such as renal dialysis and for certain purposes in food production and pharmaceutical use. Those who are severely immuno-compromised may need to take additional steps, such as boiling drinking water, due to their susceptibility to organisms that would not normally be of concern through drinking water.”

Interestingly, the WHO document indicates that the nature and form of drinking water standards may vary among countries and regions, affirming that there is no single approach that is universally applicable. Since the methodology in one country may not apply in another, it becomes necessary that each country develop its own regulatory framework in line with its needs and capacities.

In Nigeria, the National Agency for Food, Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) has the mandate of registering potable water brands to ensure quality and healthy package, storage and delivery to final consumer.

It engages in water quality monitoring exercise to reduce the susceptibility of persons to water-borne diseases and illnesses and maintaining international standard.

Dr. Paul Orhii, Director-General of NAFDAC in a visit to the NYSC Director-General said sachet water production has attracted a lot of people due its lucrative nature.

He however, noted the illegal things being done by sachet water producers in disregard of regulations laid down for sachet water production by NAFDAC.

The unhygienic environment in which some of the sachet water production was being done was unacceptable and non-registration of some products, a violation of the law, Orhii observed.

In 2013, NAFDAC organised a number of workshops on adherence to water production standards. It noted some factories deviated from the standards that existed when the inspection and registration were done and those who fell foul of the law would be properly sanctioned.

An independent public analyst for food and drinks, Mr. Uche Ugokwe said there is need for regulatory agencies to step up their game and also pay unscheduled visits to these producers; they need constant monitoring he said.

On the fluctuating state of water, he said, “The level of water in the aquifer changes status with season. For instance, during the rainy season, the level is high, while it is low during the dry season. The position of a borehole should be looked into especially if it is where there is flooding as it could bring contamination via the downpour. It can also be polluted through the soil and a combination of atmospheric factors.”

Ugokwe said it is not enough to give licenses and go to rest, but there is need to partner with their professional counterparts because NAFDAC may not have the capacity to do all. “You cannot be a judge and an arbiter at the same time just like the Agency. They should devise means by which independent analysts and professionals can be involved in close monitoring and inspection.”

Basic guide to assessing potable water

For the man on the go, he said there are basic checks to do to ascertain if the packaged water purchased is good enough for drinking, at least casually. Colour, taste, odour are things to watch out for, while the rest like metal, chemical or microbiological contaminants can only be analysed in a certified laboratory.

He stressed that monitoring is costly and that is why local agencies appear to be shying away from it, but if done frequently and consistently, the ordinary consumer would be saved the loss of money expended in purchasing what may turn out to be a bad product.

Now, the potable water product is also challenged by contaminants like ‘chlorinated hydrocarbons’ that come from the packaging material or the soil and the environment. There is also the biphenyls. It can come into water streams too and these can affect the body metabolism adversely, he added.

Unscheduled inspection

Ugokwe argued there might be instances of what might be like guided tour of production factories in which case, it will require an experienced officer of the regulator to know where to put critical searchlight. Otherwise, he thinks the officer could pass through without really doing the job.

For this, he said unscheduled visits would go a long way in effective monitoring, noting that NAFDAC and the other agencies should partner independent analysts, from Institute of Public Analysts of Nigeria (IPAN), Chemical Society of Nigeria or Nigerian Institute of Food Science and Technology (NIFST), even more than before, seeing the tremendous growth of packaged water ventures.

Ugokwe called for a tripartite arrangement between NAFDAC and these professional bodies to get the monitoring done. The individual members can do physico-chemical monitoring (taste, colour, odour, pH, turbidity) even in a small-scale laboratory if they are encouraged. We don’t have labs that are independent of government because they are expensive to establish, so even retirees, who are professionals could be engaged.

In many developed countries, Ugokwe asserted, there are private laboratories, and things can easily be monitored.

The public analyst canvassed the need for the agency that does the registration of packaged water products to be separated from the direct monitoring. Post registration duties should be given to credible independent analysts, who are also members of professional bodies; NAFDAC should check their reports and pay for their services, as the regulatory agencies do not have enough personnel to cover all areas.

Overall, a consumer should find the appearance, taste and odour of drinking water acceptable. The WHO report points out that the most objectionable components of potable water are those that have the capability to negatively impact public health.

Like public analysts agree, the consumer has no way of determining whether a water product is free from deleterious substances other the use of the human senses. “It is natural for consumers to regard with suspicion water that appears dirty or discoloured or that has an unpleasant taste or smell, even though these characteristics may not in themselves be of direct consequence to health,” the report says.

Therefore, in all the process of packaging water for consumption, the thing of uttermost importance is to keep the quality at optimum, which implies that the desirable attributes of acceptable appearance, tastelessness and odourlessness remain intact.