Lack of clean drinking water forces Pakistanis to buy bottled water if they can afford it, but repeated tests show that is no guarantee of safety
Nearly 35% percent of Pakistan’s estimated 182 million people do not have access to safe drinking water. According to Pakistan’s National Drinking Water Policy of 2009, the burden of disease related to water, sanitation and hygiene costs the country about Rs 112 billion ($1.1 billion) each year.
The poor quality of drinking water has forced those who can afford it to buy bottled water. According to a World Bank report of 2011, bottled water consumption comprised 29% of water-related costs, equivalent to 1.4% of total economic costs and 0.05%. The cost of bottled water consumption was Rs 4.67 billion ($76.72 million).
Despite this, Ghulam Murtiza is not deceived by the clear and sterile appearance of the bottled water available around Karachi. He should know; he has been in the business of monitoring water quality – both of groundwater and bottled water – for over a decade.
The latest report on bottled water quality by the government-run Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources (PCRWR) is a clear indictment of the grim situation of water quality that Murtiza is well acquainted with, working there as a research officer.
Among the various tasks that include rural water and ground water investigations and monitoring through a chain of 19 laboratories in all four provinces of the country, since 2005 the PCRWR has been testing bottled water too.
“Every quarter we submit a report on the bottled water brands we have tested to the Ministry of Science and Technology,” Murtiza told thethirdpole.net.
In the current report a set of four bottles each of 71 commercially available brands were collected and sealed on site with identification codes allotted. These samples were collected from seven big cities (Islamabad, Rawalpindi, Tando Jam, Lahore, Quetta, Sialkot and Karachi) from three of the four provinces of Pakistan.
Eight brands completely unsafe
Of these, eight brands were found to be “completely unsafe” for human consumption as they had levels of arsenic, sodium and potassium far higher than the permissible limits prescribed by the national standardization body – according to a report by the Pakistan Standards and Quality Control Authority (PSQCA).
Working under the Ministry of Science and Technology, PSQCA licenses bottling plants to sell their products after it has ascertained the quality meets the standards it has set.
In the three bottled water brands deemed unsafe, arsenic levels ranged from 11 to 35 parts per billion (ppb) compared to the permissible limit of 10 ppb set by the PSQCA.
Secretary General of the Pakistan Medical Association (PMA) Mirza Ali Azhar told thethirdpole.net that if arsenic exceeds the permissible limit, it can slowly damage the nervous system, liver and kidneys. It can also affect the reproductive organs.
Health practitioners say increased exposure to potassium can adversely affect kidneys, heart, hypertension and diabetes.
Bacteriological contaminants (coliforms) were detected in three more brands. Ali Azhar said microbiological contamination causes cholera, diarrhoea, dysentery, hepatitis, typhoid and other diseases.
While the 2009 drinking water policy recognises “access to safe drinking water” as a “fundamental right of every citizen”, emphasizes on the enforcement of the National Drinking Water Quality Standards, and the government approved the National Standards for Drinking Water Quality (NSDWQ) in 2010, the reality is otherwise. In Pakistan over 53,300 children die every year from diarrhoea caused by unsafe water and poor sanitation, according to a 2009 report by UNICEF.
“We submit the report and our job ends there. Then it is up to the licensing authority, which is, the PSQCA, to take action,” explained Murtiza.
“That’s true,” said Waiz Ikramul Haq of the PQSCA, in Karachi. “We only monitor brands that we have given licence to but there are as many unauthorised set-ups in private homes that we cannot do anything about, other than seal them. But these come up again in no time with a different brand.”
“Unless the water is checked for the mineral content and microbiology, it is illegal to bottle that water and use it for commercial purposes,” Haq informed.
Furthermore, said PCRWR’s Murtiza, it is illegal to sell water coming from the government’ supply line.
In the provinces of Sindh and Balochistan of which he is in charge, there were 106 bottling units (plants) which sell 125 brands of bottled water, Haq said. “We recently sealed over a dozen factories doing illegal business.”
“Often, when a licence is cancelled, in just a few days, they re-emerge with a brand new identity,” said Murtiza.
Water is one of the 78 items that PQSCA monitors through its ten field officers. There is an evident staff shortage.
On top of that, there is the slow pace of the judicial system. Haq finds their exercises “futile”. “The penalty is there, but what’s the point when the judicial action may take months, even years and appearances before the magistrates carries on endlessly?” he asked.
The PSQCA takes the errant bottlers to court, and violating its rules can result in a fine of at least Rs 50,000 and one year behind bars. But the slow pace of the judicial system frustrates the officials.
However, there is a brighter way of looking at the situation. English daily Dawn said making PCRWR’s findings public may be having a “deterrent effect”, because the new figure is lower than what was found in the first quarter of last year – 21 unsafe brands.
Clean water at home?
Many people have installed reverse osmosis plants in their homes to clean the water before drinking, but have no means to test the final product.
Despite this, Murtiza emphasized that bottled water is no replacement to the water people get piped to their homes. “We also test water quality from the water supply system and over the years the quality has rapidly deteriorated.”
Water quality profiles of 24 major cities and 23 surface water bodies (rivers, reservoirs/ dams, canals etc.) on the PCRWR website showed that of the 64 sub-districts (called Tehsils), 48 had water unfit for drinking. Nearly 80-85 % of water samples tested were bacteriologically unsafe – turbid and containing dissolved solids above permissible limits.
Similar checks in 23 major cities revealed that the four major contaminants in drinking water sources of Pakistan were bacteriological (68%), arsenic (24%), nitrate (13%) and fluoride (5%).
Bottled water is consumed by a very small percentage of people in urban areas who can afford to do so; the rest of the population uses groundwater. Pakistan clearly has a problem on both counts.