For decades, successive governments, from military to civilian, have promised to provide free potable water to Nigerians. I’m a full-grown adult now and it’s safe to say the Nigerian government has failed woefully in providing this most basic need. Ultimately, government’s failure ushered in the era of packaged water popularly called ‘pure water’.
The more government failed the more pure water spread until it became the standard drinking water in the homes of ordinary Nigerians especially those who live in urban areas.
By 2012, Nigeria was generating N7 billion daily from pure water. That figure would likely have tripled by now, a situation which would make pure water one of the most common commodities around us, at home, offices, markets and in the streets. Water is a basic necessity, drinking water more so. There’s therefore a natural market which will only continue to grow.
But how safe is it really? While the water is popularly called ‘pure water’, majority of the population have never really put that claim to test. So, I decided to ask the streets. And because pure water is such a general thing, I extended my questions to the online community.
What I learned was this: many Nigerians cannot vouch for the purity of the water they generally refer to as pure, but they would nonetheless prefer it to other sources of water like boreholes or taps, which respondents believe to be dicey.
“Most of the water people package and sell as pure water is not treated,” Esther a university student in Calabar says. “I recently discovered that the borehole water a factory sells to the public for general use is the same one packaged and sold as pure water. Nothing added.”
“Sometimes I buy a bag of water for drinking and end up using it to cook because of the taste,” Osize a student in Ekpoma supported.
Well, no one can say for sure how pure a particular brand of pure water is and people who have been keen enough to observe offer evidence that casts a huge shadow of doubt over the industry. So let’s take a look at what people are saying.
How often does an average Nigerian drink pure water
As I have mentioned earlier, pure water has become a staple in cities and towns across Nigeria. But how staple is it? How often does an average Nigerian drink pure water? Is it really the only source of water for many?
“I drink sachet water daily because the major source of water here is a well,” Akpan who lives in Ibadan says.
Zoe a schoolteacher in Nnewi admits she has another source of water at home but nonetheless takes pure water daily. “I take pure water on a daily basis especially at work when my water from home is exhausted,” she says.
Ogechi who lives in Ajaokuta says it is her only source of drinking water. “I drink it all the time. The steel company here has a plant,” she says.
“I don’t have any other sources of drinking water,” Jude from Lagos says. “Pure water is the only source of drinking water for me.”
David who lives in Warri says it is his only source of drinking water as well.
Sachet water is an integral part of life for city dwellers in Nigeria and in many places, the only source of drinking water. But should people be wary?
The real taste of water
Water has been generally defined as a tasteless and odourless liquid. So what happens when drinking water develops a taste? How often do Nigerians drink pure water and discover it has a strong unpleasant taste?
“It happens from time to time,” Blessing who lives in Jos says. “I think it happens when the bag of pure water is kept for a long time on the ground.”
“Four out of every ten times I drink pure water I get a taste,” Esther says.
“I’d say three out of five times,” Ogechi says.
“This happens quite often,” Diana who lives in Lagos says.
Ijeoma, a lecturer at UNN says it happens to her regularly but she attributes it to lengthy storage. Ifeanyi says it happens rarely in Calabar where he studies. Michael another resident of Calabar agrees with him. David says it usually happens when he buys on the road or at roadside stalls. Kingsley attributes it to storage by the sellers. Raphael thinks the producers and area the water is produced are responsible. Osize says most pure water in Ekpoma have tastes. Everyone agrees they have had pure water that has a not so pleasant taste.
From the stories so far, it seems ‘tasty’ pure water is pretty common as everyone who responded had experienced it. Most people called attention to poor and lengthy storage, not necessarily production. But beyond taste, is there more to pure water than meets the unsuspecting eyes?
Particles and Colours of Water
Another attribute of clean water is its clearness. Clean water should be devoid of colour and particles. But is that necessarily the case with pure water in Nigeria? How often do Nigerians find particles in their water?
“I haven’t found any particles so far,” Zoe says.
“I don’t think I’ve found any particles in the ones I have inspected,” Kingsley says.
“I don’t inspect all the time but for the time I did, I did not find any particles,” Jude says.
“I usually inspect the water but I’ve not found any particle yet in any,” Chigozie says.
Tope in Ibadan however disagrees. “I once bought pure water that has grain like particles in it,” she says.
“There was a time I even found a cockroach in the sachet,” Ogechi supported.
“I have found particles in my pure water on few occasions,” Blessing says.
“I don’t recall finding particles in pure water. But I have seen water that seemed to have a colour. It was either slightly hazy or somewhat bluish,” Diana says.
Esther says asides the brand she finally settled for, several others had particles in them. Chidiogo agrees with her as does Osize.
But generally, slightly more people have seen particles in their pure water than people who have not. So what standard of hygiene do Nigerians believe their pure water companies maintain?
Mediocrity has almost become an aspect of enterprise in Nigeria such that stories of falling standards are pretty normal. From canned foods and beverages to electrical parts and building materials, standards are always dropping for a variety of reasons. The pure water factories are no different and a lot of people don’t expect them to maintain high standards of hygiene.
“I don’t believe pure water producers maintain high standards of hygiene,” Ebuka who lives in Enugu says.
Femi who lives in Lagos and who has visited some factories attests to the fact that those in his vicinity do because they are owned by organisations that have proven records of high standards. However, he thinks pure water factories generally don’t have proper hygiene.
“Very little attention is given to hygiene when producing these pure water,” Jude who has visited at least two factories says as well.
Charles who lives in PH has never visited a pure water factory but grades them according to images he has seen. “I have seen horrid pictures of pure water production sites,” he says.
“I don’t think most of them do,” Ifeanyi who hasn’t visited any says. “I still feel it’s just tap water packaged in water proof.”
“I think most sachet water manufacturers recycle the sachets without sterilising them,” Blossom who has visited a production site insists.
Perception about standards are the same across board. Chigozie has never been to any production sites but believes they don’t maintain high standards. Raphael who has been to a number of pure water plants believes only a few of them maintain good hygiene. Esther who claims to be ‘afraid’ of visiting one bases her judgment on the outward appearance of the one close to her place. Ogechi insists some actually do, definitely not all. Diana doesn’t know and would rather not know.
Ijeoma however disagrees, based on the two pure water production places she has been to. “I have been to two pure water companies in Nsukka and they are fairly neat,” she says.
“These days I believe they do since I have not encountered any particles or taste that is the cause of the producers,” Kingsley says.
Silas agrees with them while Michael who has been to a production site but never really entered the production area gives them a hygiene score of 7/10.
It is obvious from the testament that many people have visited at least one sachet water production site. It is also obvious that most of them don’t think pure water companies maintain a good degree of hygiene. So if people feel this way, why do they still drink pure water?
The answer is in the stark reality that many Nigerians have little or no ready alternative. The helplessness is captured in Blessing’s testimony: “I was once at a pure water production place to buy water and the environment wasn’t encouraging but do I have a choice?”
This feeling of helplessness is the reason for continued patronage without questioning. It is also why production companies don’t feel the need to stick to good standards.
Not many Nigerians have visited a pure water production factory with the mind of inspecting it. I won’t blame them for that because as taxpayers, such visitations are what they pay an agency like the National Agency for Food and Drugs Administration and Control (NAFDAC) for. So do Nigerians think NAFDAC is carrying out this sensitive inspection tasks they are being paid to do?
“I think they don’t,” Esther says. “That’s why there is inconsistency in the taste of some brands of pure water and particles in others.”
“NAFDAC is after their money, not our health,” Akpan says.
“NAFDAC can be bribed,” Ijeoma agrees.
“Most of these companies are not accredited by NAFDAC and the NAFDAC numbers on them are not genuine,” Blossom says.
David agrees. “I think some just brazenly put something there. Moreover, there are places that NAFDAC does not get to,” he says.
Jude agrees with the hidden location story. “A lot of these pure water are [sic] produced in very hideous places that are difficult to locate,” he says.
“Once they visit the factory at the commencement of operations, they don’t bother visiting again,” Tope says. “Even when they do, they don’t do comprehensive checks but just await their brown envelop.”
“I can’t vouch that they do this intensively,” Michael confesses.
Zoe, however, believes NAFDAC does its duty. “I heard that a pure water factory was recently shut down here in Nnewi by NAFDAC citing unhealthy environment,” she says.
Helen is uncertain how they have carried out their periodic checks. Kingsley believes they try even though they are not nearly as efficient as desired. Diana thinks NAFDAC is too understaffed to be effective.
Going by the reports above, many Nigerians don’t believe NAFDAC has been alive to their duties of safeguarding Nigerians from the health risks of improperly produced pure water. While NAFDAC would claim otherwise, the fact is that their efforts have largely gone unnoticed by Nigerians who continue to get bad tastes and find particles in their water.
At this juncture, I want to note that I visited a pure water production site and the management believed I was an undercover NAFDAC personnel who wanted to find a weakness in their operations only to start extorting money from them based on that. Very sad indeed.
How safe do Nigerians think pure water is?
Nigerians have several reasons not to trust the pure water they drink.
Raphael says. “There was a time the water had taste and I fell sick afterward so I had to stop taking it for some time.”
“One cannot vouch for the chemical process undertaken to ‘purify’ the water,” Diana says. “The sachets they are packed in are made of plastic which can leave a taste in the water. But we don’t have choice but to drink water.”
“Some stalls sell expired water,” Ebuka says. “Some pure waters do not carry original NAFDAC numbers. I don’t believe they are safe.”
“I don’t think they are safe,” Femi says. “Sometimes it’s not just the water, the nylon and its printing is an issue too.”
“It’s not 100% safe,” Osize says. “In my early days at Ekpoma, after every treatment in the clinic, the doctor would advise I watch the water I drink and use.”
“I don’t believe they are safe because they are poorly regulated and not much is known about their activities,” Jude says.
“Most times, after a few days in your house, pure water tends to change colour and the nylon becomes slippery,” Chidiogo says.
Blessing is of the opinion that people should stop calling it ‘pure water’ because it is anything but pure. “Some of the factories where these things are packed are eyesores,” she says.
Ifeanyi thinks sachet water can’t be pure because it is produced with the same tank as regular boreholes. Tope agrees it isn’t safe but gives some of the blame to the hawkers. Akpan thinks not and blames it squarely on zero production hygiene.
Eunice disagrees, however, insisting that her own choice brand is safe. “I’ve had the opportunity of visiting the factory and seen the stages the water goes through before final production,” she says.
Onyinye who stays in Enugu agrees with Eunice, insisting that her brand of pure water has no taste or particles. But generally, far more people just don’t trust their pure water to be safe.
From people who produce bottled water in their sitting rooms by scooping the water from buckets with cups and hundreds of others impersonating popular water brands and adulterating their products to the hundreds of production companies opening up every day, many of which NAFDAC knows nothing about, Nigerians are exposed to any number of waterborne epidemics.
But, a lack of choice has forced them into accepting any pure water brand regardless of how substandard these same people think the water is. This calls into question the duty of regulatory bodies like NAFDAC. Have they lived up to their duties as a cancer festers under their nose?
Nigerians need NAFDAC to be alive to their responsibilities and be seen to be working.
Some of the people I spoke to advocated surprise visits while others think a simple survey of people’s opinions in a particular locality would reveal which water is good and which should be looked into. Bottom line is, Nigerians do not trust their drinking water but trust is a luxury a majority cannot afford at the moment.
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