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How safe is “low priced” drinking water sold in Kampala

By Isingoma John, Ultimate Media

Happy for clean water in Kisenyi.

Water is life. In Kampala city, which harbors over one million workers during the day, many people are faced with the daily challenge of finding safe and affordable water. Many people drink water to survive, minding less about the quality or safety of the water.

Because there is an ever-increasing demand for water in Kampala, business people-especially women in food joints and kiosks have emerged to seize the opportunity and make quick money.

The businesswomen purportedly boil the water, some pour the water in polythene bags, but others pour it in used mineral water bottles, cool it in fridges and then hit the road to sell water. Some hawk it, while others have established selling points in buildings with offices and shops.

The 500 ML bottle of water is sold at shs100. The one in polythene bags is also sold at 100 shillings; however, you never tell how much water is put in the bag because sellers use different measurements but all slightly less or more than 500ML.

There is another type of water, which is made in small-scale industries, sealed in polythene bags with words such as ‘Vanilla water’ written on the polythene bags containing the water. This water is also sold at shs100, but it’s not as popular as the one sold in used mineral water bottles and unsealed polythene bags.

Presented with a situation of buying the same amount of water at shs100 or shs500, many Kampala residents are increasingly choosing to buy the one of shs100.

However, of concern is the safety of this water, due to the negligence associated with water sellers, the cleanliness of packaging materials and the lack of adequate fuels to boil the water, leave alone the businesses being small and hence hard to license and monitor for quality assurance.

Susan, an accountant with a flower exporting company in Kampala says that the safety of the low cost water is very questionable. She says that when she first came to the office, she bought water of shs100 but it tasted bad for her.

“I automatically knew it was not safe. Nowadays, I buy bottled mineral water to avoid the cheap and probably impure water’”, says Susan. She says that for her she can tell properly boiled water from one, which is not by just tasting it. She says while some water sellers boil the water they sell cheaply, others don’t. Most of the water is also packed in used mineral water bottles, the majority picked from garbage bins in homes or in the city.

Gorrette who is a low cost water seller in the City however says she and many people in this business sell well boiled water packed in clean utensils.

“Me I don’t sell water which is not boiled to the required temperatures. I also never serve water in a bottle which is not thoroughly washed,” she told Ultimate Media in an interview. But she admits that she while they are required to use hot water to wash the bottles which they use for packing water, many use raw (cold) water and soap to wash the bottles and this is another risk.

Susan however insists that if one considers the risk of cheap water and decides to buy water from certified water providing companies like Rwenzxori Mineral Water, Azur Mineral Water or Highland Mineral Water, especially water in bigger capacity bottles, one can take safe water at a moderate cost and enhance or maintain their health.

For example a bottle of mineral water of 1.5ML is sold in supermarkets around Kampala at 600 shillings. The same amount of water from water vendors goes at 300 shillings, leaving a difference of 300 shillings.

500 ML of water from certified companies goes for between 350-500 shillings depending on where one buys. “This difference should not make city workers risk their health,” Susan says.

But not all packed water is safe. In Uganda, almost everything has a genuine and fake version. Even industrially bottled water on Ugandan market is suspected to be impure allegedly because some unscrupulous people inject unclean water into sealed mineral water bottles. Keen people in Kampala city are normally seen checking the bottom of the mineral water bottles to be sure its genuine water.

“I would rather take cheap boiled water and suffer the consequences that take fake original looking bottled water and suffer because it is also not healthy,” says Bernard, whom I found buying water at Gorretti’s place. He says many people would rather risk their health with these formal drinking water providers than “anonymous shops”.

But one wonders how the cheap water mostly sold to the lower and some average folks of society can be safe and more so during the present 12 hours load shedding in Kampala.

Gorrette however insists that the water they are serving is well boiled and not even the current 12hour load shedding can force her to sell water, which is not boiled.

Instead she laments how the load shedding is making her lose money especially when it hits before she boils the water. She says they also value and want maintain their customers and selling them un-boiled water or water in dirty bottles will send away their customers, which would be against their business motive.

Despite the assurances from Gorrette about how she cannot put her clients at risk by selling them water which is not boiled, questions still come in as to how these women, with limited access to sources of power to use when boiling water can really consistently boil water and serve it in clean bottles and polythene bags.

People like Susan may be able to tell safe water by just tasting it, but how many people have tongues, which can differentiate boiled from un-boiled water? You may have the pity of finding out about the safety of that cheap water when you go for medical examination after falling sick.

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