Danger Behind Every sip

How Safe is Bottled water?

In the past decade, the bottled and mineral water industry has registered enormous growth. From less than 10 a decade ago, the number of companies in the industry has grown now to 70. However, even more operators who bottle water without licenses are filling the market, exposing consumers to health related risks. EBR’s Ashenafi Endale reports.

One of the new business sectors that have emerged over the last decade is the bottled and mineral water industry. Starting with higher income consumers in urban areas, bottled water is now largely available in most parts of the country. Although the bottled and mineral water industry has grown in an impressive manner, the existence of illegal operators, which perhaps outnumber licensed companies, may be allowing consumers to unknowingly consume tainted water.

Although 70 licensed businesses are involved in the bottled and mineral water industry, according to the Ethiopian Conformity Assessment Enterprise (ECAE), a similar number of firms operate from unknown locations without licenses, and without complying with the requirements and standards, such as hygiene codes. “A significant number of uncertified bottlers are still producing and selling,” explains Gashaw Tesfaye, deputy director general at ECAE. “The exact volume of bottled water available in the market in Ethiopia is currently unknown, as there are many that operate outside the quality control and tax system.”

The Enterprise is aware of the bottled water brands that are illegally processed at home. Such companies usually pack tap or other water in bottles they smuggle from certified water companies or buy from the market, as an assessment by Ministry of Trade (MoT) inspectors shows. “There is a high chance that anyone can pack bottled water without proper licensing and certification,” says Sergut Wolde, director of Certification Directorate at ECAE. “Ensuring quality in the bottled and mineral water industry is just at the initial stages. Many companies will not survive if we implement rigorous standards at this level.”

The owners and management of bottled and mineral water companies are not the only ones to blame for the lack of safety. The Enterprise’s findings showed that employees at the companies mistakenly add foreign materials like hair, chemicals or other objects into the bottles, just before they are capped. However, some carry out such acts deliberately if the company refuses to raise salaries, or even as sabotage on behalf of competitors.

Beyond such disastrous cases, bottled water might contain microbes that cause cholera and many other diseases, due to sub-standard or old machines, or the process of drilling, transporting, treating and bottling the water, according to experts. “That is why a digital bottling factory that doesn’t involve human contact is preferred,” argues Abebe Guluma (PhD), director of Research and Laboratory Directorate at the Ethiopian Water Technology Institute. “In addition, there is no government institution to ban and collect expired bottled water from market shelves.”

Although ECAE is familiar with the existence of unlicensed bottlers, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it is taking action. “Our job is giving licenses, not regulating. The regulatory mandate is given to the Ministry of Trade,” stresses Gashaw. Such circumstances have created confusion, and sometimes arguments between bottlers and the Ministry. One such case is the rift between Classy Water and the MoT.

Belaya Industrial, bottler of the well-known Classy Water, is the latest to be accused of producing sub-standard products. In September 2018, the MoT banned the products of Classy Water, after microbes were found in samples of Classy Water, taken randomly from the market in April 2018, according to the Ministry. “The bacterial content highly increased after some time, and reached fatal levels. We would have been blamed for not taking action, had we failed to do so,” explains Wondimu Filate, director of Public Relations and Communication Directorate at the Ministry.

But what seemed odd to many is that the ban was passed after ECAE, which also takes samples and checks quality standards every three months, gave the company the go-ahead to continue production in early September 2018, according to documents seen by EBR.

Dagne Yisigat, owner and general manager of Classy Water, says his brand was dead the minute the Ministry made the media announcement. “All our distributors and sellers started calling us from across the country immediately. More than ten trucks on the way from the factory to sellers returned. Now we are in limbo.”

“The issue is not about quality,” argues Dagne “It is between me and a few officials at the Ministry, who asked for bribes or wanted me to sell the company to their people.” He refused to recall the products from the market, leaving consumers in doubt.

Bottling companies enter agreements with the Enterprise, to produce water in line with parameters prepared by the Ethiopian Standards Agency. The Enterprise takes samples, checks the factory premises at any time and provides documented evidence every three months of whether or not the company is operating in accordance with standards. The Enterprise sends the samples of water to Germany, because its laboratory lacks some machineries and technologies.

For lab testing, which includes 54 measurements, the Enterprise charges ETB50,000. The certificate is only valid for one year and needs to be renewed annually. It undertakes factory evaluations before and after production, final random inspections, and inspections after loading. After all these inspections, the Enterprise certifies the product, system and personnel.

The Enterprise is expected to carry out these inspections every three months, but due to shortages of man power, budget and delays from the bottling companies, the Enterprise checks each water bottling company only once or twice a year, according to Sergut.

In addition, Abebe argues each standard needs separate certification, a method that is still not practiced. “If the Enterprise certifies a water company for the right calcium content, the label usually says the company is qualified in everything. But separate certifications are needed for each standard requirement, like fluoride, chlorine and other contents.”

While industry players claim expensive and repetitive testing procedures are dogging the legal bottled water companies, enormous health risks await consumers since many bottlers are dragging their feet to go through legal channels. However, Gashaw says standards in Ethiopia are less strict. “We do so mainly to encourage investment in the business. The sector is still growing. If we implement strict standards, almost all of them will fail and leave the business.”

In Ethiopia, quality standard requirements and monitoring is behind, even compared to other African countries like Kenya, which recently took punitive measures on 158 water bottling firms that were alleged to be operating without valid product certification marks and failed to meet required standards. The less strict standards and unclear procedures of certification and regulation systems, according to industry insiders, are the main reason Ethiopian water bottlers have not been able to start exporting their products, even to neighboring countries.

Recently, the WHO decided that bottled water must contain chlorine residue, for further safety from contaminated bottled and mineral waters, ignoring the side effects high chlorine content can bring, namely in shortening life spans by up to 30Pct. Such new developments seem unheard of in Ethiopia, which has seen an explosion in the number of bottlers.

According to Sergut, the laboratory under construction at the newly established Ethiopian Water Technology Institute could play a huge role in reversing such trends. “Had it been operational, it could help us highly.”

Although the Council of Ministers approved its establishment five years ago, the business oriented institute is still in the process of establishing the laboratory. One of its pillars is adopting international bottle water quality guidelines and producing internationally acceptable laboratory tests, according to the standards of the World Health Organisation (WHO). To that end, the Institute is building an internationally standardized water laboratory at a cost of over ETB300 million, excluding the cost of delays, according to Abebe. “Currently, the lab machineries have been imported but the building has not been finalized. The lab was supposed to start operation this year. But we are not sure if it can start even next year,” he adds.

But rather than the status of the laboratory, what worries Abebe is the diminishing of the country’s potential underground water resources. Even though underground water potential is immense throughout the country, including the lowlands, easily drilled and naturally clean underground water is located largely in highland areas, especially the mountain areas in the central parts of the country and the Rift Valley areas. The exact amount of Ethiopia’s underground water potential is still unknown. For a long time, it was estimated at 2.5 billion cubic meters, until the Ethiopian Geological Survey (EGS) put the figure at 28 billion cubic meters in 2010. However the Ministry of Water, Irrigation and Energy puts the estimate at around 30 billion cubic meters. The EGS, on its part, is currently finalizing mapping of Ethiopia’s underground water potential.

Ethiopia’s underground water potential has recently come under various threats, affecting its natural quality, according to Abebe. “Environmental pollution, irresponsible environmental exploitation by bottling companies and industrial outputs, especially chrome and metal elements discharged from tanneries, are polluting all water bodies. Therefore, rigorous safety standards are indispensable for bottled and mineral water.”

Ground water also stores and transforms carbon, waste and other chemical products, which need proper environmental treatment. “Polluting chemicals from surface earth can simply drain into ground water, and move from a particular underground water store to another,” explains Abebe.

Various research underlines Addis Ababa’s role as the fore-runner in the misuse of underground water, due to a weak land utilization policy, lack of monitoring as well as regulation of wells. Usually well licenses are given by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Addis Ababa Water and Sewerage Authority. “A more intensive use of ground water requires a commensurate development of ground water management mechanisms,” adds Abebe.

Over 8.5 million people living in and around the Rift Valley areas are exposed to dental fluorosis while 78Pct of the total population is exposed to iodine deficiency, among other deficiencies. This exposes bottled water to risks. “Adhering to the quality standards is the only way to maintain such businesses,” says Alemayehu Ayalew, general manager of Ambassador Water, which joined the market just two years ago “The concept of investing in quality and branding is still not well developed in the industry. Many of the companies must reshape their concept of quality, and invest in their technical and management skill, in order to create big brands competitive in the international market.”

7th Year • Nov.16 – Dec.15 2018 • No. 68

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