By Gamuchirai Masiyiwa
HARARE – The question over the quality of water around Harare — both bottled and tap — is as clear as mud.
Consumption of bottled water is increasing rapidly in Zimbabwe among the middle and high income earners as it is generally perceived to be pure, clean and of good quality than tap water.
This has led to the sale of different brands of bottled water on the local market.
This industry is one of the fastest growing industries worldwide estimated to be worth $22 billion annually.
However, the figures to ascertain the value of the industry in Zimbabwe were not readily available by the time of writing.
Some researchers and environmental activists say the bottled water market is partly fuelled by concerns over the safety of municipal water and by the marketing of many brands which portray them as being drawn from pristine sources and as being healthier than tap water.
However, some bottled waters only differ from tap water in the fact that they are distributed in bottles rather than through pipes as this two-month investigation found out.
Researchers define bottled water as any potable water that is manufactured, distributed or offered for sale, which is sealed in food-grade bottles or other containers and intended for human consumption.
“Our attitudes towards tap water are being shaped by the pollution which is choking the rivers and streams which should be veins of life,” argues one environmental activist.
An investigation carried out on two bottled water samples and another on municipal water show that bottled water is not safer, or healthier than tap water in Zimbabwe.
As part of the investigation, water samples of two bottled water samples from two major brands were purchased at two leading supermarkets in Harare and a bottled water sales point along George Silundika.
Labels of these two samples were removed to avoid bias from the laboratories and they were labelled as sample 1 and 2. Municipal tap water was also taken for the analysis.
The samples were sent to the City Council Laboratory and the Government Analytical Laboratory.
Results from the City Council Laboratory revealed that all water samples were microbiologically safe meaning they had no bacteria in them.
However, a chemical analysis showed the pH level in the two bottled water samples needed to be adjusted and to be within the World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines.
Sample 1 had a pH of 6,1 and sample 2 had a pH 6,4 when the required range is 6,5 to 8,5.
The pH is a scale for measuring acidity and alkalinity. Proper pH levels are essential to good health.
Sample 1 had an acidity level which fell below the permissible limit required by the Food and Food Standards (Natural and Mineral Water and drinking Water Regulations 2002).
Sample 2 had a concentration of antimony (0,03) when the standard required is (0,005) exceeding the maximum permissible limit as required under the 2002 food and water standards regulations.
Antimony is a semi-metallic chemical element and exposure to relatively high concentrations of it can have more serious health effects such as lung disease, heart problems, diarrhoea, severe vomiting and stomach ulcers.
An analysis of municipal water showed the presence of bacteria of 54 per 100 millilitre (ml) of water, way above the stipulated 0/100 ml.
This study, though not very detailed, acknowledges that while bottled water has the advantage of being perceived as generally safer by consumers, in reality it is turning out that bottled water is no better than municipal water.
Water experts say bottled waters contain spring, mineral or glacial water and can also be manufactured from tap water.
De-mineralised water or distilled water, they say, is simply tap water that has undergone processes to lower mineral content and remove chemicals such as chlorine.
“Tap water and bottled water are virtually the same. The risks for contamination of bottled water are the same as those for tap water,” says a Harare-based water expert of bottled water which has now become a “must have” fashion accessory for the middle class.
Zimbabwe’s bottled water legislation stipulates which sources of water are acceptable, which types of treatment are required, the maximum levels of certain substances, and what information bottlers must display on their labels.
However, lack of financial resources and manpower by the health ministry has hampered efforts to monitor and enforce the water bottling industry.
“Laboratory facilities at the Government Analytical Laboratory need to be upgraded. An acute shortage of manpower at both the Laboratory and Environmental Health Department, the freezing of posts for key laboratory scientific and environmental health personnel has affected our capacity to monitor the water bottling companies,” says Goldberg Mangwadu, the director of environmental health in the ministry of Health.
However, he said, the constraints were not a passport for bottling firms to operate as they wish.
“We are currently vetting all the water bottling companies to see if they meet water quality standards. We are de-registering all companies which are failing to meet the water quality standards,” he said without mentioning names of those that have been de-registered.
“As a ministry we have structures and we take appropriate action if there is any violation of water bottling regulations. Every year our officers inspect premises as a licensing requirement and for licence renewal purposes.”
Last November, the government banned 40 water bottling firms for failing to meet safety and quality standards.
This followed an influx of bottled water suppliers in response to a surge in demand due to the water crisis in Harare and most other towns and cities in the country.
At the moment, only nine firms were authorised to sell mineral and bottled water by the health ministry.
The other 40 were advised that their water was not suitable for bottling for various reasons including contamination, unsuitable packaging and wrong labelling.
According to media reports, the companies certified by the Standards Association of Zimbabwe included Schweppes Zimbabwe Ltd, Tanganda Tea Company Ltd, Century Ice, ZLG, Brackenridge T/A Kanyerere Investment, Reichmark, Aqua Crystal, Chromopak Investments, Somerby, Chilruff T/A Springvale, Mukati Investments and Blester Marketing.
The withdrawal of chemical procurement by Unicef has boosted demand for bottled water and a lot of backyard companies have mushroomed.
“In some cases people are turning to borehole water whose quality cannot be relied upon due to underground contamination especially in urban centres,” says Mangwadu.
“We have also seen companies resorting to supplying water in tankers and this whole scenario frustrates us.”
The Government Analytical Laboratory is also facing financial and manpower constraints.
“We are not an island and you know how our economy is, we face resource constraints.
Our machine which tests for arsenic in water broke down and due to constraints in resources we are incapacitated to run the tests hence we out source from other laboratories like Standards Association of Zimbabwe (Saz),” says Munyaradzi Musiyambiri, the director of water at the Government Analytical Laboratory.
Some local water bottling firms dismissed any health concerns surrounding their water products.
According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), in terms of nutritional value, bottled water is no better than tap water.
The UN agency reports it may contain small amounts of minerals but so does tap water from many public municipal water supplies. Other water experts say the use of bottled water is unsustainable and impacts negatively on the environment.
A WWF (international non-governmental organisation working on issues regarding conservation, research and restoration of the environment), study found out that bottled water is no panacea to the world’s water problems.
“Bottled water isn’t a long term sustainable solution to securing access to healthy water,” said Richard Holland, director of WWF’s Living Waters Campaign. “Clean water is a basic right. Protecting our rivers, streams and wetlands will help ensure that tap water remains a service which delivers good quality drinking water for everyone at a fair price.”
Demand and consumption of “designer water” is growing as are concerns about the safety of piped water supply and borehole water. And, despite its popularity, investigations on the quality of bottled water in Zimbabwe have catalogued various levels of contamination.
Consumer Council of Zimbabwe (CCZ) says there are a lot of questions over the quality of bottled water being sold in the market.
“There are big questions of the safety of some of the water being sold in the market. There are questions on the authenticity of the water.”
We don’t want to cause any alarm but the public needs to know that not all the water in the market is safe,” said Rosemary Siyachitema, CCZ Executive Director.
“We take the issue of bottled water seriously because out of all the water in the market only three or four meets the standards. The public should publicly be told this and those selling substandard water should be asked to remove it from the market but the problem is that the bodies that are supposed to do it like the City Health Department and government health analysts are not adequately and fully-resourced to do so.”