Packaged water and the unanswered health concerns in Sierra Leone

  • A common scene across urban Sierra Leone

By Kemo Cham

It’s May, one of three months in the dry season dreaded the most in Sierra Leone. Accessing water for domestic use is the most difficult in this time of the year.

For most part of Freetown, like Malama in the west end of the capital, people mostly rely on water wells. This is either because they have no access to pipe-borne water or, even when they do, the taps are seldom functional. Nevertheless, at this time most of the wells are dry. Consequently, safe drinking water has become a luxury for most of the inhabitants of the city of population of over 1million.

This deficit however presents an opportunity for the private sector – a booming water packaging business. They are packaged in sachets, plastic bottles, and water dispensers, which are mostly used in office settings. The most popular is the sachet water, which is also the subject of a major public health concern.

No one knows how many companies are involved, and that’s the number one problem bugging regulatory authorities.

In 2016, the Sierra Leone Electricity and Water Regulatory Commission (SLEWRC) ordered 86 brands off the market. The blacklisted brands were

among 150 whose samples were obtained from the market and subjected to random testing. The Commission said they fell below basic standards of production and their contents were unclean and unfit for consumption.

Even those cleared to operate barely met the basic requirements. An

overwhelming majority of those found wanting had “backyard” factories.

Some producers were found to be fetching water from wells and filling them directly into the sachets, without any form of purification. Lack of proper care for even the well processed water can lead to contamination by disease causing microbes like Escherichia coli, Salmonella, Shigella, and Vibrio, with life threatening implications. Common diseases associated with unsafe water in Sierra Leone are cholera, typhoid and diarrhoea. In 2012, nearly 400 people died in the worst cholera outbreak in the country since it registered its first epidemic in 1970.

And diarrhea is ranked among the top five major killer diseases of children in the country which has one of the 10 highest rates of infant mortality in the world. The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington in the United States ranks diarrheal diseases as the 2nd largest killer, after Malaria, in the country in 2016.

Preventing outbreak of these waterborne diseases will require a regulatory system that promotes core hygiene values beyond just the end product, say observers. This is because there are reasons to believe that sachet water can become contaminated after leaving production sites while in the hands of distributors, and vendors due to poor handling and storage.

And there is also the need for robust public sensitization on the dangers associated with these products.

SLEWRC came into being through a 2011 Act. It only became operational in 2016. Hence the Commission has constantly complained of inadequate resources to provide effective regulation.

“We don’t have a concise data on the amount of water companies producing water in Sierra Leone. The reason is that some companies only produce water at night and wrap up their machines in the morning.

Some are at some locations that are hard to reach, so it’s difficult to track them down,” a spokeswoman for the commission, Ngozi Obi Sesay, was quoted by the Concord Times newspaper saying.

Consequently, there are all sorts of brands in the market: Family Life, Pure Life, Nour Best, Blue Moon, Always Fresh, etc. And almost every day there is a new one.

And the competition is so strong that those who are not doing good impersonate the successful ones. Thanks to the advancement in technology, manufacturing the sachet has become easier.

So, if you think you are drinking your favourite water like Grafton, one of the best and safest brands in the local market, you might well be drinking water from a well or stream nearby.

Three years since the clampdown on the packaging companies, nothing has changed, observes Musa Ansumana Saccoh, coordinator of the Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Network (WASHNET) of Sierra Leone.

“It is more or less business as usual,” Saccoh said in an interview, lamenting the fact that companies that have been found not in conformity with standards, safety and wellbeing were still providing “a very delicate” service to unsuspecting citizens.

“You can imagine the spillover effect that may have on citizens,” he said. WASHNet is an umbrella body of civil society organisations which advocates for policies geared towards provision of water and sanitation in the country. It works with both the government and its development partners, notably the UN agencies in the country.

The network participates in all meetings relating to efforts to regulate the water sector. Saccoh says one thing that comes out clearly at such meetings is the lack of collaboration among the government agencies with oversight responsibilities – the ministries of Health and Water resources, SLEWRC, and the Standards Bureau which provides laboratory expertise to the government.

By law, the Ministry of Health is concerned about sanitary issues with regards the operation of the companies, even though critics say it’s hardly effective in that regard.

After the 2016 clampdown, it was discovered that the Commission and the Health ministry each had different list of registered companies.

Some of the companies outlawed by the Commission were certified by the ministry.

Under the SLEWRC Act, people involved in the water sector face a fine of up to Le50m or five years imprisonment for violating the law.

Saccoh said the fact that those companies ordered to shutdown still operate is enough indication of the weakness in the regulatory environment.

The activist stressed that only through collaborative engagement can the government ensures that service provision is balanced with assurance of health and wellbeing for consumers.

The World Health Organisation and UNICEF Joint Monitoring Program (JMP) report in July 2017 estimates that 2.1 billion people worldwide lack access to safe drinking water at home. Most of these deprived people are in poor countries like Sierra Leone.

The government’s development blueprint [2007-2017 promised to provide 70 percent of the population with safe drinking water. This was also the target of the outdated United Nations Millennium Development Goals. But, according to figures from the JMP, only 57% of the country’s seven million population has access to improved drinking water.

Saccoh said it would be impossible for the government to meet its target in the absence of checks and balances in the governance structure, noting that this is particularly untenable with the “distorted power relations” at play.

“This distorted power relations still continues to exist among the Ministry of Health, the Commission and the Standards Bureau,” he said. Sierra Leone has two separate agencies mandated to provide water for its citizens: The Guma Valley Water Company, which caters for urban Freetown, and the Sierra Leone Water Company, which provides for the rest of the population.

Guma, grappling with an aging infrastructure, has failed to meet the demands of a swelling population. And the government parastatal is itself the reason the packaged water companies have become a tough competition. Besides its erratic supply schedules, its pipes, most of which are burst, pass through filthy gutters and unhygienic environment.

Ironically, Guma is the source of the water from the packaging

companies. Saccoh says it all boils down to trust.

“If people do not trust the services Guma is providing, they cannot ordinarily consume the raw water from the tap. They rather prefer the sachet company that is not in fact undergoing any form of purification, just because of the packaging,” he said.

Politico  7th May 2018

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