Saturday, 17 September 2016

That bottled water may quench your thirst or kill you

The boom in Nigeria’s table water industry has created underground producers putting consumers’ lives at risk in the face of low capacity by regulatory agencies, Punch's Kunle Falayi writes.

In Nigeria, drinking a bottled water may save you from thirst or kill you.

If there is one person, who has now learnt this lesson, albeit in a hard way, it is 36-year-old Bimpe Adebiyi, a banker, working in Nigeria’s commercial nerve centre, Lagos.

That day, Adebiyi was stuck in the usual rush hour traffic that made the journey from her office on Lagos Island to her home in Ketu area of Lagos, Nigeria’s most densely populated city, a daily nightmare.

On Thursday, July 21, 2016, after two hours in the traffic crawling at a snail’s pace, she called one of the numerous vendors hawking bottled water in bowls balanced on their heads. She bought a 75cl bottle water for N50 (about 16 cents). That was the day she nearly lost her life.

“I would have died and no one would have known why,” she said.

According to her, it was like buying death (or something close to it) for N50.

The bottle water she bought that day landed her in the hospital after complaining about severe headache and stomach ache less than one hour after she took her first gulp.

“I could not have suspected that it was the water because the doctor said it was food poisoning. My mind was on the food I ate in the office canteen. I was lucky my colleague in the car with me could drive. We had not even got home before I knew that I was in trouble. When things became worse, she took over the steering wheel and I pleaded with her to drive me to the hospital straight away,” she said.

She spent the next two days in the hospital.

Adebiyi lived to tell the story. Now, she has dedicated a slice of her time to teaching people about unhygienic water consumption via her Facebook page and WhatsApp messenger.

“After my treatment, I had to look for that brand of water that nearly killed me. I was really serious about finding out about where it was produced and possibly report the producers to the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control. But I never saw it again,” she said.

In Lagos, like many other cities of Nigeria, bottled water vendors in traffic, street corners and highways are like lifesavers.

Unfortunately, for many Nigerians, there is no choice but to yield to their liquid merchandise in a country where weather temperature sometimes reaches more than 30 degrees Celsius on a regular day.

Over the years, the bottle and sachet water industry in Nigeria has grown bigger by trying to plug the supply gap in the country’s water sector. The huge business opportunity, now runs into billions of Naira.

According to the former head of NAFDAC, Dr. Paul Orhii, Nigerians drink N8bn worth of bottled and sachet water every day.

Most of the 75cl bottled water on the streets are sold for N50 (about 16 cents).

According to Orhii in 2013, at least 100 million bottles of water were consumed in Nigeria on a daily basis, which amounted to N5bn at the rate of N50 each.

He also said that N3bn worth of sachet water were sold every day, which amounted to 60 million pieces at the rate of N5. Currently, a sachet of water is sold for N10.

“I am not counting water used during parties, I am not counting those who brush their teeth or wash their hands with bottle water, I am counting those who drink a bottle per day (or sachet per day), to satisfy their thirst,” Orhii said.

Even though this statistics was given few years ago, the agency’s Director of Special Duties, Dr. Abubakar Jimoh, reconfirmed to our correspondent that the figure is still a valid one.

“We arrived at the N8bn based on a survey we conducted and right now, that is still how big the industry is,” he said.

In other words, at N8bn daily, it comes to N240bn every month and N2.9tn (about $91bn at current exchange rate) annually.

In context, the bottled water industry is almost as big as Nigeria’s telecommunications sector.

As of first quarter of 2016, Nigeria’s active voice subscription stood at 148.74 million people, according to the National Bureau of Statistics.

With an average revenue per user of $6 (according to the National Communications Commission), it means Nigerians make $888m mobile phone calls every month, which translates to N280.1bn at current exchange rate.

Unfortunately, underground operators are aware of this huge market for bottled and sachet water in the country and seek to get a slice of the revenue, but killing many Nigerians in the process.

Chief Medical Director of a Lagos-based hospital, Friezel Medical, Dr. Victor Bobade, said considering the kind of cases hospitals such as his treat on a daily basis, the number of people that unhygienic water kills in the country every year runs into hundreds of thousands.

“Unfortunately, you won’t get a precise data anywhere. But any doctor will tell you that the diseases caused by consuming unhygienic water may either kill fast or slowly depending on the rate at which the bacteria multiplies. But usually, the effect is over a period of time. Victims just develop series of related illnesses that they may never associate with water source.

“If such victims belong to the social strata that might have tried different personal treatment before consulting a doctor, they risk death.”

Unfortunately, the picture the doctor painted is not a strange one.

In August 2016, 33-year-old Elizabeth Chieje and her two-year-old baby, Bella, were rushed to the Lagos State University Teaching Hospital, Lagos, after complaining of stomach ache, fever and dysentery.

Barely two days in the hospital, Bella died while her mother pulled through the ordeal.

Hospital officials said the child’s case had become advanced before she was brought in.

Weeks after, Chieje was still mourning. Her sister, who took this reporter to her two-bedroomed apartment on Ajayi Street, Ogba, Lagos, said she had been too depressed to leave the house.

The sallow-faced woman who sat on the edge of her bed that evening was still far from being okay.

She said, “I tried to get pregnant for four years before I had Bella. Now, my baby is gone. I was the one who first started stooling, I did not think it was anything serious. Then, she started stooling too. I was told to buy some drugs, which I did. The stooling and stomach ache did not stop.

“After some days when it became worse, my sister took us to our usual clinic and later to LASUTH. We did some blood tests and they told me we both had typhoid and other bacterial infections.

“They asked which water we were using to cook at home and I told them it was borehole. They asked if any other person in our compound had dysentery or was sick and I said no.

“But I told them I did not drink the water from the borehole but only used it to cook. I drank sachet water. I bought three packs of sachet water two weeks before that time. I had never bought that brand before but I saw it at my vendor’s shop one day and he told me it was a new brand and a little cheaper than others and I stocked three packs at home.”

Asked why her husband did not fall sick too, she said her husband was out of the state at the time but only came back to Lagos when she and Bella were taken to the hospital.

“The doctors said since I had been using the borehole water to cook for many years without any problem, it was likely that the problem came from the water I was drinking.

“My daughter could not eat, or drink. They were giving her many injections with drips. But I woke up on the hospital bed three days after we got there and saw my sister crying. I asked for Bella and she could not say anything. That was how I knew something had happened to my daughter.”

Asked for the name of the brand of sachet water she bought, which was suspected to be the source of the problem, she could not remember, but pointed to the kiosk where she bought it few metres from the house.

A young man speaking pidgin at the kiosk explained that he had heard about what happened to Chieje but did not think there was anything wrong with the water.

“That was the first time I would buy that brand too but nobody else who bought it complained that they fell sick from drinking it. I have stopped buying that brand too. It is called Panko Water,” he said.

From boreholes into bottles
Few weeks ago, a shocking video hit the internet, bringing to light why every Nigerian who drinks either bottled or sachet water should be worried.

The video was recorded by members of the Association of Table Water Producers of Nigeria in Abia State.

A salesgirl in the video showed how water was pumped from a borehole into a storage tank. A pipe connected to the tank was used to siphon water directly into hundreds of unlabelled bottles spread on the ground.

The salesgirl explained that they put the label of any genuine bottled water company on the bottles and distribute them, to be sold to the public.

Even though the company was shut down, thousands of others just like that exist all over the country.

It was the same when some underground water bottling factories were discovered recently in Badagry, Lagos.

On the quiet street where the “factory” was discovered, in Badagry area of Lagos, unmarked trucks came and went at regular intervals until curious neighbours started to ask questions.

The destination of the trucks was usually a bungalow that bears no signpost to show the kind of business taking place in the compound.

It was first noticed that the empty trucks entered the compound only to leave with loads of bottled and sachet water.

Words finally got to the ATWAP, whose members stormed the apartment and impounded over 3,000 packs of table water produced illegally, without licence and without equipment necessary for water treatment.

With a water pump, storage, bottle and sachet sealer, the operators were in business, distributing and selling water that had passed through no form of treatment to members of the public.

The company had been in business for many years.

That same week, ATWAP members in the state, shut down another company in the same community producing water in similar fashion.

There are numerous companies all over Nigeria such as these, who are operating under the radar and taking advantage of the incapability of regulatory agencies.

Chairman of ATWAP in Lagos, Rev. Ebere Ibeawuchi, confirmed that most times, the labels bearing real NAFDAC certification numbers on some fake bottled or sachet water belong to other genuine companies.

“The illegal operators just clone the labels of other companies and the unsuspecting members of the public buy and consume water that may put their lives in danger. Sometimes, they put the fake addresses on the product. So, if there is any trouble and you go there, you will never find them.

“In some of the factories we visited, the treatment plants are so obsolete, that a filtering part that is supposed to be changed every six months might have been there for more than three years. In that kind of situation, the water is not treated at all. It is just like raw water, which is even worse than pipe borne water.

“In some cases, the environment is so unhygienic that mere looking at the place, you won’t ever want to put anything produced there in your mouth.”

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