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Bottled 'spring' water or just clean water?


By Q. Isa Daudpota

These days, two of the largest hotel chains in Pakistan, serve bottled "spring" water in their more expensive restaurants. To my bemusement, the water is sold at four times what the same, or similar, bottle costs in a grocery store, but the bottled water also conveniently comes from a relative's factory! You are not given the option of getting plain, filtered water or to order another brand of bottled water. Surely, provision of clean filtered water should to be mandatory for all restaurants in the land.

The last time a generous friend treated me to a meal in the hotel's Thai restaurant in Islamabad, I walked out with an empty bottle whose label proudly announces it as "Natural Mountain Spring Water". This is written below a picture of a clear water lake sitting in the lap of snow-covered mountains. Now, one would have to be very gullible in order to believe that the water actually came from a mountain spring!

On turning the bottle you see a table giving 8 chemical parameters with numbers attached to each. Not even a good chemist would know what these numbers mean in relation to the required standards. Clearly, their only purpose is to impress the buyer that the water has undergone a quantitative analysis. And below all this is the additional reminder: "Made as (sic) strict accordance with W.H.O., I.B.W.A. & E.P.A. standards." Information from a reliable independent source says that the water is, in fact, extracted from an aquifer (not a spring) in Hattar in the NWFP, which is an industrial area with inadequate sewage and waste disposal facilities.

The Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources (PCRWR) has tested bottled water three times since 1999 and displayed the results on their lack-lustre website. The last two of these tests were done at the insistence of the - then minister who was in-charge of PCRWR, and he in turn did this due to pressure from consumer and health activists. Instead of providing a few pages giving clear guidelines about the safety of all the brands on the market for the common buyer, the PCRWR lays out the results suitable mainly for specialists.

The PCRWR has the best water testing labs in the country, but they claim that that it is not their mandate to test bottled water; instead they are supposed to assess the water quality of general water supply across the country. Instead of setting up another lab just to analyse bottled water, which makes up a relatively small part of overall testing, it would seem sensible to broaden the mandate of the organisation to include bottled water. Frequent testing of bottled water would then become the PCRWR's responsibility.

But to put so much effort into providing "safe" expensive bottled water -- that is mostly consumed by the elite -- overlooks the serious neglect of the water sector as a whole in Pakistan.

Guidelines and standards are needed to provide safe drinking water to all the citizens. The PCRWR and the Pakistan Standard Institution (PSI) have already drafted drinking water quality standards based on studies and guidelines of the WHO, however, the enforcement of these standards is still pending.

Only about 30 percent of the population has access to piped drinking water, which has been rarely completely tested for safety. Seventy percent of our population drinks water of unknown quality; the only testing comes through human consumption - if you do not get sick, the water is tolerable, if you get sick, take medicine and in the future try and boil the water. That is about all most people do, instead of standing up and forcing the state to provide clean water, which is every citizen's right!

Although the government has committed to the United Nation's millennium target of doubling the number of people having access to safe drinking water by 2015, the effort to formulate a practical strategy and begin the process is not at all visible. Given that the access to safe water is currently minuscule, it is important that Pakistan does far more than the UN target recommends. This is possible if water purity in watersheds is carefully guarded, and where water quality is compromised, economical and appropriate clean water technologies are used. Ensuring that watersheds are not contaminated, thereby avoiding expensive purification later, cannot be overemphasised.

Far more important, though, is the preservation of ecologies and watershed, which naturally provides clean water for the largest number of people. Trees, shrubs and ground cover provide a natural brake on soil erosion and allow water to soak into the soil, slowly sinking into water aquifers. The movement of water through grass, and other ground coverings, filters a large number of harmful materials and chemicals which would otherwise reach water reservoirs, where treatment to remove them becomes very expensive, if not impossible. Such natural filters are far better -- and more sensible -- and help keep the watersheds clean and healthy. What better way to ensure filtration than keeping an area full of greenery to allow nature to slowly and efficiently clean the water without the expenditure of money or energy?

Sadly, there has been neglect of such ideas in the Punjab government's proposed New Murree Project. The neglect has been recently highlighted in several persuasive articles in the national press with some international coverage as well. This project at Patriata is aimed at building up an area nearly four times the existing town of Murree, which itself is bursting at its seams. The new "development" entails the destruction of a large mature conifer forest, which will take no less than 150 years to regenerate. An increase in landslides is inevitable, and a reduction in natural seepage into the watershed of the Simly reservoir will further ruin the quality of water provided to Islamabad.

The data for the proposed plans and details of the damage it will cause is due to the tireless work of a "water warrior", a civil engineer who during four years of research has unearthed a wealth of data about the geology, hydrology and meteorology of the region. He has thoroughly highlighted the dangers of further development in the hills. A recent IUCN report, to which he contributed substantially, has also shown lack of enthusiasm for such building developments.

The recent discovery of a February 2000 report of Pakistan Engineering Services (PES), titled "Simly Dam Project -- Third Periodic Inspection", done under contract for WAPDA, emphasises the urgent need to restore the health of the watershed of Simly Dam, which is already under great strain due to development taking place just upstream. Clearly, further building projects, as envisaged by the New Murree Project in Patriata, would destroy, irretrievably, the chance of restoration of Simly.

Chapter 17 of the PES inspection reports the presence of high levels of coliform bacteria, a major cause of water-borne diseases. This is not surprising due to untreated municipal pollution caused by an increase in the population upstream and a large number of poultry farms that have sprung up. "It is known that the quality of water supplied to Islamabad from Simly Reservoir, even after treatment at Simly water filter plant, does not fully meet the standards set by the WHO", and "there is wide disapproval of the use of water from Simly treatment plant by Islamabad residents."

The report recommends that waste, both human and animal, reaching Soan River, which is the main water conduit in the watershed, be controlled by treatment at the source, that is, installation of septic tanks in the villages and the burying of solid waste. It recommends, rather conservatively, that a ban on setting up of new poultry farms in the area be "considered". It asks that the quality of water entering the treatment plant at Simly be maintained within desirable limits, which if exceeded will adversely affect the supply of drinking water quality to the capital.

The report recommends the growth of creepers and wild plants to increase ground cover, which would act as filters and decrease soil erosion. Cutting down on soil erosion increases the reservoir's life by reducing the deposition of silt and decreases the turbidity of the water in the reservoir.

Even rectifying the current problems will require serious effort by the Capital Development Authority, something that it seems disinclined to do with its current penchant to accomplish mainly "visible" projects. Such high-profile projects can quickly glorify the CDA's work in the eyes of powerful individuals who move through or reside in the city.

The solution does not lie in large-scale plants to clean carelessly contaminated water; it lies in people demanding, and indeed pushing, for the development of newer watersheds and the preservation and improvement of existing ones. For Islamabad's citizens, the prospect of greater contamination of the water looms large. That's unless the New Murree Project is shelved and we work to improve the Simly dam's watershed. Let's drink to that.


The author is a technologist with a special interest in the environment. He was the founding programme director of the Sustainable Development Networking Programme of the UNDP