Bottled water sector in Pakistan: What is needed to be done? – by Qudrat Ullah

In Pakistan, the unchecked and more than needed population explosion has heightened the need to ensure uninterrupted access to improved drinking-water supply, especially in mega cities like Karachi and Lahore where traces of multiple deadly rudiments including the human feces are reported by laboratory reports. This shows height of criminal neglect exhibited by the civic bodies towards public right of safe drinking water. Provision of pure water to all the people by the government is not only a basic need and precondition for a healthy life but it is also a vital human right of all the people which mustn’t be ignored at any cost. The whole edifice of human life revolves round it.

Various improved water supply technologies have been developed by the modern world nations which included household connections, public standpipes, boreholes, protected dug-wells, protected springs and rainwater collections.

It is reported in the media many times that the global water shortage of affordable and safe drinking water is conspicuously visible in Pakistan with an estimated 44 percent of the total population is without any access to safe drinking water. This paucity of clean drinking water can be more visibly seen in rural areas where up to 90 percent of the inhabitants may lack such access. On the other side, only three percent of Pakistan’s sweet water resources are used for household purposes and drinking. As one warning of the high-scale of the drinking problem prevalent in our society and the public ignorance of it, it is anticipated that more than 2.5 lakh infant children die of diarrheal diseases every year. Results of five years National Water Quality Monitoring Programme which covers 23 major cities, 8 Rivers, 9 lakes and many reservoirs show widespread bacteriological contaminants in the drinking water. Chemical contaminants in drinking water such as arsenic, fluoride and nitrate are discovered at various locations. Arsenic contamination is found in southern Punjab and central Sindh. Contamination in drinking water is the major cause of many serious water borne diseases.

Water is accepted in Islamic teachings as an essential source of life; of which, everybody has the right to a fair share. According to a Hadith, it was stated by the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) “Muslims have common share in three (things): grass, water and fire”. Moreover, the Holy Quran has also warned the human beings against unfair distribution of common goods and Islamic scholars concur that Islam forbids unfair assumptions, exploitation and uneven earnings of common goods like water.

It is pity that even in this era of 21st century, majority of the population is destined to use or drink from unkempt and polluted water system and due to that, various problems have arisen-increasing the number of terminal diseases like Hepatitis etc. For those who can afford to avoid this unclean drinking water, bottled water is the only solution. Therefore, many in Pakistan have turned to bottled water as an apt substitute to drinking unfiltered faucet water or contaminated water of other sources where there is no public drinking water service. Average person consumes just two liters of bottled water per annum in Pakistan, compared to four in India and 10 in China. While bottled water is an awfully classy alternative to safe drinking water problem; it has been reported many times in the media that it is not for all time fit for human health because intermittent testing of contaminants and sporadic inspection of processing plants show that not all bottled water plants are being run according to health and hygiene standards set forth by the U.N.

Bottled water, it may be noted, should not be taken as an appropriate replacement to a sufficient service of tap-water as due to the lack of it, hapless buyers are forced to use bottled water. During the past thirty years, use of bottled water is increasingly moved up the world over, as it has become a global phenomenon. Bottled water sector, despite its excessively high price compared to tap water, is measured as one of the powerful sectors of all the food and beverage trade as its consumption increases by an average of 12% every year. Government has termed the bottled water market, with 33 million liters of consumption per annum in 1999, as small but positively on the rise. It is envisaged that a bottle of 1.5 liters has a production cost of Rs. 12.51 only. In United States, bottled water costs between 0.25 dollar to 2 dollar per bottle, while tap water costs less than US$0.01. This shows high rate of return in this field.

In our country, there are approximately twenty to thirty companies engaged in this business. Official figures show an estimated number of 26 corporations, while in summer time, this number increases up to 70. But from the perspective of quality control, Pakistan Council of Renewal Water Resources is witnessing a fluctuation in the market of 50 percent, e.g. half of the brands disappear and are replaced by new brands every year. Recently, it is told to the Lahore High Court that out of a total of 64 bottled and mineral water manufacturing companies in Punjab, only 10 are working under valid licences.

For the interest of the common readers, it may be added here that MNCs engaged in bottled water business are very powerful in our country where there is little room for the rule of law. One case is particular to note; on December 31, 2004, the Supreme Court approved the decision of the Lahore High Court, which dismissed a Rs. 6.35 million Pakistan Railways contract that granted Classic Needs Pakistan (Pvt) Ltd exclusive rights to sell bottled water to Railway passengers during 2004/2005. Furthermore, the Court directed the Railways administration to revoke the present contract, invite fresh bids and award the contract of bottled water supply to a firm after examination of water by a credible laboratory. Classic Needs Pakistan (Pvt) Ltd is the exclusive distributor of Nestlé’s ‘Pure Life’ which is its own brand. The Supreme Court declared the bottled water being supplied to passengers unfit for consumption and injurious to health. The decision of the Supreme Court was based on two different reports. The report of Pakistan Council of Scientific & Industrial Research (PCSIR) declared that both companies were bottling clean and healthy water; but the second report submitted by National Health Centre Islamabad, disclosed that even though mineral water products by both companies were contaminated, Nestlé water had a ‘low risk’ factor while the Classic Needs water was ‘high risk’. The then Supreme Court Justices namely Khalilur Rehman Ramday and Falak Sher took serious view of the reports and observed that the firms were making the people consume poisonous water and taking advantage of rail passengers as particularly captive buyers, as no hygienic water was available at Platforms and inside trains. But nothing happened afterwards and even media is silent on the issue. Bottled water sector has great scope to expand but it’s also need to develop composite regulatory authority to keep a constant check on quality and price.

We are facing a serious water challenge as Pakistan’s water quality ranks at 80th out of 122 nations. As a consequence, Government has to spend about Rs. 20 billion annually on medication for water borne diseases. In fact, water sector is repeatedly ignored by successive governments and due to that, Pakistan is also rapidly losing its legitimate water share of Rivers under Indus Basin Treaty. Due to that, severe effects have started to appear in our society like depletion of water level in cities grounds, lack of water in canals and rapid drying of Rivers.

This situation shows that criminal neglect has been shown by the public sector in providing clean drinking water to the people and on the other hand, government is also neglecting its obligations towards implementing laws for a healthy society. If we want to emerge as healthy, vibrant and developed nation in 21st century, then we will have to implement laws in their true spirit as no democracy can flourish without the rule of law.



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