Dar es Salaam — Consumers should beware of bottled drinking water that comes in attractive packaging as it may neither be pure nor enriched with minerals as claimed by manufacturers. Investigations have established that unscrupulous businesspeople are selling poor quality bottled water, raking in millions of shillings in profits at the expense of the health of unsuspecting consumers.
The rapid growth of the business is compromising quality, with some players openly breaking the law by not sticking to the strict standard requirements for bottled drinking water as specified by the Tanzania Bureau of Standards (TBS).
A new research report by Prof Tolly Mbwette of the Open University of Tanzania (OUT) has laid bare the danger that could be lurking in bottled drinking water with the finding that very few companies meet the quality and safety standards as required.
The liking for bottled water that has evolved into a multi-billion shillings industry is fuelled by changing lifestyles and also partly due to the failure of many local authorities around the country to guarantee consistent supply of clean water. But Prof Mbwette, who is an expert in environmental science and technology, says in his findings released this month that authorities needed to look at the provision of clean and treated tap water afresh to save consumers from being ripped off.
According to his research - 'Global Quality and Regulatory Framework for Bottled Water' - done as part of his professorial lecture and released in Dar es Salaam, there are glaring inconsistencies in the TBS certified standards and labelling, among other shortcomings in the industry.
The don observes that government oversight bodies are either lacking in capacity to counter the unethical racketeers or are lax in enforcing the set rules and regulations. Prof Mbwette says the purity in packaged water is not adequately guaranteed, regulated or monitored.
He adds that there are 31 TBS licensed brands of bottled water but out of 16 samples studied, three failed to meet required standards. While the international standards require companies to label analysis data on the bottles of drinks including water, some bottled water in the country do not have such data or even the mandatory manufacture and expiry dates.
Other studies in the past have also returned positive impurity results, with several cases reported of people arrested with fake bottled water.
Prof Mbwette says there are no national guidelines for compulsory parameters as the labels vary from one water company to another, adding that consumers are ignorant of such requirements as no sensitisation has taken place.
"The public must be further cautioned that poor or limited access to safe public drinking water will never be solved by resorting to using bottled water alone and that other needs of water can be met vide reliable non-public water sources," he advises.
The findings reveal that there is no time-to-time inspection after the preliminary verification by TBS.
However, TBS downplayed the research findings, with the bureau's director general, Mr Charles Ekerege, saying the problem was not as serious as portrayed.
"Consumers need not worry because TBS has ensured that bottled water sold in this country is safe," he told The Citizen on Sunday when asked to comment on Prof Mbwette's findings.
Asked to name companies bottling drinking water that has been approved by TBS, Mr Ekerege declined and said such a list would only be availed during his detailed response to the research findings.
The Citizen on Sunday later learnt that a team of TBS inspectors had been dispatched to carry out sampling. Officials at the Tanzania Food and Drugs authority could also not comment immediately, saying it required some time to come out with an appropriate answer.
Other highlights of Prof Mbwette's study include companies failing to show where their water was bottled or not distinguishing between 'mineral', 'spring', 'well' or tap water as long as it is bottled. Some simply refer to their products as 'pure water.' Each product has its own instructions, for examples, some include words like 'do not freeze', 'do not store in direct sunlight', confirming the need to put clear mechanisms for monitoring or packaging.
He says there is need for strict laws to guard the commercial water market because pilferage existed and many people are buying tap water filled in used recycled bottles that were cleverly resealed by unscrupulous vendors.
Prof Mbwette says it appears that water gets far less scrutiny from inspectors and suggested that like the fuel sector, the Energy and Water Utilities Regulatory Authority (Ewura) put more effort on water.
Ms Albina Maganga, a Dar es Salaam resident and frequent consumer of mineral water, said that she has lost faith in bottled water, noting that she only buys from supermarkets believing they are less likely to sell fakes.
She urged water-bottling companies to find ways of guaranteeing security against the counterfeiting of their products if they have to regain consumer trust.