Just behind the Kwame Nkrumah Circle pedestrian shopping mall, Christina Tetteh is squishing a plastic water sachet, helping her one-year-old daughter Fosoa slurp down the liquid.
She has just finished feeding the baby at her make-shift shop where she sells second hand clothing.
Used panties and boxer shorts hang from a wobbling large umbrella she and her baby perch under to protect them from the baking sun. Seven more empty water sachets litter the ground around her.
“If the water in the sachet is good for me, then it is good for my baby,” Tetteh says.
The widely held perception that all pure water sachets are safe is an illusion. Scientific surveys, sachet water producers and the Food and Drugs Authority have all expressed concerns about some of the products on the market.
Tetteh says it’s not something that worries her.
“I think all the pure water is safe. Some taste differently but they are all good,” she says, as she lists some of her favourite brands. “I am not the type who is selective about what to drink.”
Sachet water safety
Four years ago, a collaborative scientific survey between the biochemistry department at the Allied Health Sciences at the Korle Bu Teaching and the Ghana Standards Authority sought to find out the microbiology quality of various packaged water in Accra.
It found that while there is a widely held perception that sachet water is safer than that from the tap, much of the water in the sachets tested was well above international safety standards.
The study sampled sixty randomly selected sachets and ten of bottled water from various locations in Accra.
After subjecting the samples to scientific scrutiny they found out that fifty-two out of 60 sachet water sample had bacteria levels well above the internationally recommended standards. Half of the samples contained parasites.
The bottled water proved safer with about 90 per cent testing within the limits. “It’s true most of the products that we are purchasing are not good,” said Francis Mawuli.
He is the coordinator of Water International Africa in Ghana, an NGO that works to provide people with access safe drinking water and education on handling and consumption.
Mawuli said while water producers may work under hygienic conditions, the handling of the water can make them unhygienic by the time the consumer drinks the water.
“When you hold the water in your hand you see white substances but people are buying it and they are drinking,” he said. “Most of the time you see the trucks expose the packaged water to the sun, and it’s very dangerous.”
Salamatu carries her baby behind her back while balancing a green plastic head pan selling “pure” water. Occasionally she adjusts the dirty wrapper holding her baby boy behind her to prevent him from falling.
The 28 year old says when someone wants to buy a sachet; she grabs it with her dirty hands.
But Salamatu told the Weekend Globe that some consumers prefer to pick the water from the pan themselves.
“Some of them think our hands are dirty so we will contaminate the water so I will usually bend a little bit for them to pick themselves,” she said.
Unregistered sachet producers
Richard Hordson Kofi Ahamazie, with The Greater Accra Sachet Water Producers Association, told the Weekend Globe that there are thousands of sachet water producers in Accra alone.
Many of them have not registered with the association and may produce in an unhealthy environment. But their product is still on the market.
The Ghana Standards Authority and the Foods and Drugs Authority have tried to smoke out such producers, closing about 20 factories two years ago, but many of those producing without a license are still in business.
At a Water International Africa conference for packaged water producers in Accra, some of the producers confessed that they know of some businesses working without proper licenses.
They said those people say they have failed to get certification is because of the cumbersome nature of the process.
“There is nothing wrong with government having many regulatory agencies; they are all there to do specific jobs not only to protect Ghanaians but to protect every human being. That is why for instance we have the world organization that regulates standards and every country adopts that standard and framework and sometimes improves on it to meet that country’s needs,” Ahamazie said.
Regulations for a reason
The Ghana Standards Authority makes sure that any sachet water producer has labels with the correct name of the product, the date of manufacture, and the date of expiry, all in English. The goal is to ensure consumers have enough information to make smart decisions when purchasing a product.
Ebenezer Kofi Essel, the Head of Support Services at the Food and Drugs Authority (FDA), told the Weekend Globe that there are some challenges in their bid to ensure safety food on the market.
He said they have closed down some sachet water producers that did not have certification. He also cited examples where the lay workers with established brands steal rolls from the company and later fill them with tap water and sell it on the market.
“We have had to close down a few such producers who worked from their garages, bedrooms and their kitchens,” he said. “We had them prosecuted and slapped administrative charges up to about GHC20, 000.”
Barriers of bureaucracy
Kofi Essel said the newly created Support Services division of the FDA is mandated to help and encourage entrepreneurs who want to venture into the water producing business to go through the right processes.
However, sachet water producers and Water International Africa say part of the problem is that the FDA does not do regular or random checks at the production facility to ensure that the businesses they help set up are still producing under the set hygienic standards.
Kofi Essel said the challenge is in logistical constraints. He said while his outfit will try to ensure safety of the water, the majority of that responsibility rests with the consumer.
“60 percent of regulation is carried out by self. The regulator does 20 percent and the industry does the rest. It is unfortunate in this part of the world, people think the regulator should do majority of the work,” he said.
Know what you buy
Kofi Amponsah Badiako, the Head of Public Relations at the Ghana Standards Authority, said consumers must be aware of the safety of any product they buy on the market.
“A major challenge comes from consumers. Many of them do not bother to find out or check the quality of the product before they buy them,” he said.
“As a consumer you must care about what goes inside the body, but many of them will buy, drink, and fall sick before they come to their consciousness to complain or to examine what is wrong with it and that is bad, why should you consume something, fall sick before you complain?”
On a rough dusty road in Caprice in Accra, an elderly woman sits in her small stall, selling with bags of different brands of sachet water packed on the floor and shelves.
In an interview with the Weekend Globe about the quality of the water she is selling, her smile breaks through her wrinkled face strongly insisting, “the water is good, I don’t know why you have the impression it is not good. “I drink it all the time.”
By: Nana Boakye-Yiadom/citifmonline.com/Ghana