Improved but unsustainable: accounting for sachet water in post-2015 goals for global safe water

Authors

  • Justin Stoler

    1. Department of Geography and Regional Studies, University of Miami, Coral Gables, FL, USA; Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, Miller School of Medicine, University of Miami, Miami, FL, USA
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Corresponding Author Justin Stoler, Department of Geography and Regional Studies, University of Miami, 1000 Memorial Drive, Coral Gables, FL 33124-2221, USA. Tel.: +1 305 284 6692; E-mail: stoler@miami.edu

Abstract

The advent and rapid spread of sachet drinking water in West Africa presents a new challenge for providing sustainable access to global safe water. Sachet water has expanded drinking water access and is often of sufficient quality to serve as an improved water source for Millennium Development Goals (MDG) monitoring purposes, yet sachets are an unsustainable water delivery vehicle due to their overwhelming plastic waste burden. Monitoring of primary drinking water sources in West Africa generally ignores sachet water, despite its growing ubiquity. Sub-Saharan Africa as a region is unlikely to meet the MDG Target for drinking water provision, and post-2015 monitoring activities may depend upon rapid adaptability to local drinking water trends.

Abstract

La survenue et la propagation rapide de l’eau potable en sachet en Afrique de l’Ouest constituent un nouveau défi pour l’accès durable à l’eau potable mondialement. L’eau en sachet a augmenté l’accès à l’eau potable et est souvent d’une qualité suffisante pour servir de source d’eau améliorée pour les objectifs de surveillance des Objectifs du Millénaire pour le Développement (OMD). Mais les sachets sont un véhicule de livraison d’eau non durable en raison de leur charge écrasante en déchets plastiques. La surveillance des principales sources d’eau potable en Afrique de l’Ouest ignore généralement l’eau en sachet malgré son omniprésence croissante. L’Afrique subsaharienne en tant que région est peu probable d’atteindre les cibles des OMD pour l’approvisionnement en eau potable et les activités de suivi après 2015 pourraient dépendre de la capacité d’adaptation rapide aux tendances locales pour l’eau potable.

Abstract

La aparición y rápida expansión del agua potable envasada en bolsas en África Occidental presenta un nuevo reto en la provisión de un acceso sostenible y global a agua segura. El agua en bolsa ha expandido el acceso a agua potable y es a menudo de suficiente calidad para servir como una fuente mejorada de agua para los propósitos de monitorización de los Objetivos de Desarrollo del Milenio (ODM). Y sin embargo las bolsas son un vehículo insostenible de agua potable debido a la inmensa carga de desechos de plástico que representan. La monitorización de fuentes primarias de agua potable en África Occidental generalmente ignoran el agua en bolsas, a pesar su creciente ubicuidad. Es improbable que la región del África subsahariana cumpla los ODM de abastecimiento de agua potable, y las actividades de monitorización posteriores al 2015 podrían depender de una adaptación rápida a las tendencias locales en agua potable.

Introduction

Millennium Development Goals (MDG) Target 7C aims to halve the proportion of the global population without sustainable access to safe drinking water between 1990 and 2015 (United Nations Development Group 2003). Just 10 years ago, over a billion people lacked access to an improved drinking water source, and in 2008, this estimate fell to 884 million (WHO/UNICEF 2011). In 2010, the MDG drinking water target was achieved ahead of schedule, although with substantial inequality of coverage by continent (WHO/UNICEF 2012). In 2012, the estimate stands at 780 million, and in 2015, the number of people without access to safe drinking water is projected to drop to 605 million (WHO/UNICEF 2012). Despite this progress, nearly 10% of the global disease burden is attributable to inadequate water, sanitation and hygiene (Prüss-Üstün et al. 2008). With the global population poised to rise from 7 billion to over 9 billion by 2050 and nearly all of this growth projected to occur in developing cities (United Nations 2010), the absolute number of people affected by water-, sanitation-, and hygiene-borne diseases may rise over the next decade, particularly within least-developed nations.

The specific indicator used to measure progress towards Target 7C is the proportion of households using water from an improved source based on a classification of all drinking water sources as improved or unimproved. Two recent studies challenge the adequacy of this indicator by focusing on the meaning of safe drinking water; after accounting for estimates of water source quality, progress towards Target 7C is revised downward considerably (Bain et al. 2012; Onda et al. 2012). These researchers have revived an important and old conversation about the appropriateness of the improved source metric (United Nations Millennium Project 2005; Toubkiss 2006), one of several topics currently being re-evaluated by the WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Program post-2015 Water Working Group. This commentary highlights how the recent and rapid spread of sachet water – the latest incarnation of vended water – throughout West Africa compels additional focus not only on the word safe, but on sustainable. While private-sector drinking water entrepreneurs have filled gaps in African water demand for decades (Kjellén & McGranahan 2006), the MDG and post-2015 implications of the current sachet water phenomenon have been ignored by the development community.

The plight of sub-Saharan Africa

Although MDG drinking water targets have been met globally, sub-Saharan Africa is unlikely to meet these targets regionally. Sub-Saharan Africa contains almost all of the nations in which a minority of the population had access to an improved drinking water source as of 2008, and it is the only region where urban access to piped water (either at home or at a public tap) decreased over the last two decades, from 68% in 1990 to 55% in 2008 (WHO/UNICEF 2011). The decrease in urban piped water coverage in sub-Saharan African nations is largely due to rapid population growth and urbanisation brought on by declining mortality coupled with delayed fertility transitions, as well as poor governance. Accra, Ghana, for example, epitomises many of the challenges faced by developing cities in the effort to provide basic services. Like many governments, the Accra Metropolitan Assembly has simply been unable to increase potable water production fast enough to keep up with the growing urban population. Improved water access is now qualified by municipal rationing programs and increased travel distances that create substantial heterogeneity in service levels (Stoler et al. 2012a). The sachet water industry has capitalised on this variability.

Sachet water

Known colloquially as pure water, sachet water refers to 300–500 ml sealed plastic sleeves of purified drinking water that have become ubiquitous in West African cities from Abidjan to Yaoundé due to generally high quality and low cost for both producers and consumers (retail USD 0.03–0.06). While sachet water has improved water access in many water-deprived neighbourhoods, particularly low-income communities, the discarded plastic sleeves have become a sanitation menace in many cities, and the redistribution of scarce water resources has become a major social justice issue (Stoler et al. 2012a,b). Plastic sachet wrappers litter the streets and clog drains and gutters in the rainy season, increasing the likelihood of floods and leading to subsequent public exposure to untreated sewage and a mélange of health risks. Wealthier urban sachet entrepreneurs divert water from the municipal water network – often exacerbating water shortages – and sell it to water-poor communities who increasingly rely on sachets as the primary drinking water source. Sachet water has truly become a double-edged sword in West Africa and is increasingly becoming an important source of drinking water – and plastic waste – across the region.

In Ghana, sachets are a part of daily life for an increasing number of residents. According to recent Ghana Demographic and Health Surveys, the percentage of residents relying on sachet water in Greater Accra grew from 6.4% in 2003 to 34.5% in 2008. Sachet penetration (as the primary household drinking source) was 50% in a sample of Accra’s low-income neighbourhoods in 2010 (Stoler et al. 2012a) and is expected to approach 50% citywide when the 2010 census figures are released later this year. The various data collected in Accra may be the most representative assessment of sachet consumption currently available. Joint Monitoring Program surveillance activities elsewhere in West Africa typically group sachet water together with bottled water, and the classification of sachets as improved or unimproved varies by country and context. Local governments have already begun to recognise sachet water’s prominence: Nigeria and Ghana have both recently split the traditional household water census question to separately inventory drinking water sources and the source for all other household water (data remain forthcoming). Nigerian sachet sales are estimated at NGN 7 billion (USD 44.5 million) daily (Udoh 2012).

Usually improved, but environmentally unsustainable

Sachet water varies considerably in quality depending on where the contents are sourced. The sachet water quality literature is generally littered with poor study designs and tiny sample sizes, and a recent review of this literature reveals occasional bacteriological quality concerns (Stoler et al. 2012b), as previously observed in bottled water (Ehlers et al. 2004; Kassenga 2007). In urban regions with public water infrastructure such as Accra, municipally treated water is often re-treated during the sachet filling process, and the resulting product quality is often quite high and may even be good for your health if consumed in lieu of poorly stored water (Stoler et al. 2012a). In rural areas, sachets of dubious quality may be filled from unprotected boreholes or even river water. Consequently, sachet water is generally tallied as bottled water for surveillance purposes, which may count as either an improved or unimproved source depending on the context, but this is beside the point. While bottled water remains an insignificant source of drinking water and waste due to higher unit cost, sachet water is remarkably cost-effective in improving access (Dada 2011), yet is generally regarded as an environmentally unsustainable drinking water source because of the unwieldy plastic waste stream. Cities are choking in plastic wrappers (IRIN 2004; Aziegbe 2007), and local media reports suggest water-cartel-like activity in areas of Nigeria and Ghana that have suffered drinking water shocks due to drought or mechanical disruptions to municipal water production. When communities turn to sachet water as the primary drinking water source, whether due to municipal rationing or other water shortages, this shift often represents a backslide in the effort to supply sustainable access to safe drinking water.

More data on the popularity of sachet water will soon be available. Despite the salient sanitation issues, few in West Africa – consumers, producers, and regulators alike – believe that sachets are a fleeting trend. Recycling programs and the use of biodegradable materials have not achieved the economies of scale needed to make a dent in the flow of plastic. Proposals to fund clean-up efforts via taxes on sachets or plastics have been rebuffed by both the general public and beverage industry. Local governments acknowledge that a ban on sachet water without an alternative water intervention would provoke a humanitarian disaster. The ubiquity and convenience of sachet water for both vendors and consumers – it requires little acquisition time, and no training, equipment, or household investment – may undermine other safe water projects. The success of MDG Target 7C (and post-2015 goals) in sub-Saharan Africa may ultimately rest with the development community’s ability to adapt to a rapidly evolving drinking water landscape in the face of unprecedented urbanisation.

Conclusion

Sachet water should be categorised as a primary drinking water source in all West African nations, and further research is needed to understand how the appeal of sachet water may inform urban household water treatment and safe storage interventions as the development community transitions to post-MDG monitoring. Without renewed regional commitments to infrastructure or plastic recycling, there is currently no prognosis for how sachet water will improve sustainable access to safe drinking water. Sachets may be the latest example of how the free market can temporarily bail out local governance failures in basic services provision. But if gains in water access are offset by morbidity attributable to poor sanitation and environmental degradation, then sustainability – and more broadly, maximal economic development – may remain elusive.

Acknowledgements

Financial support was provided by the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development in Bethesda, United States of America (R01HD054906, John R. Weeks, Project Director). The content is solely the responsibility of the author and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development or the National Institutes of Health. Günther Fink provided helpful feedback on an earlier draft.

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