Water in a Bottle

BY SHUVA LAXMI
Jan 21, 2011

Taps in Kathmandu may be running dry but drinking water is just a phone call away.



Water processing plants sprouting up like mushrooms in villages on the outskirts of the valley offer a choice between often untreated or contaminated water and purified water. According to the Nepal Bottler Water Industries Association, as many as sixty new water processing plants have come up this year and there are already 130 plants in the valley. But with the growing number of plants, entrepreneurs are facing stiff competition, often resulting in a compromise with the water purification process and quality of the water.

In Matatirtha VDC, four new water processing plants were recently set up this year and one more is scheduled to be built. When that is complete, Matatirtha will be home to 10 water processing plants. The proprietors of A-One – the second oldest water processing plant in Matatirtha, now running for six years – say there are only a few local sources of water and a lot of companies that want to tap that source, creating competition.

A-One operates from inside a one-floor tin roof hall divided into various sections by wooden planks and transparent glass. There are separate water treatment plants, bottle filling and jar washing sections and they also have a small lab to test the water quality.

Approximately 30 metres away from A-One is another one-storey tin roof hut, where construction work is still going on. Inside the hall, unused bricks for partition walls are piled high in one corner. The centre of the hall is floored with slippery tiles. A huge water tanker, an underground well, purifying and processing machines, full water jars and various other machines are all in the same hall. The only worker present in the hut claimed that once the machines were plugged in, they carried out filtration, purification and the capping of the bottles systematically and automatically. A day’s work of filling approximately 200 jars had already been finished by noon. Everything is handled by machines so there is little risk of contamination from external sources.

Entrepreneurs who have been in the water processing field for a long time grumble that they have to compete with small-scale plants that manage to treat water in just one room and take away a huge portion of the market share. “They are growing in number and can offer their products at lower rates by compromising with quality in order to penetrate into the market,” says Krishna Sapkota, managing director of Real Spring Mineral Water. At a time when there is a water shortage in the valley, people seem least bothered about the way water is processed and bottled.

Yet, the market price of bottled water remains the same. While the prices of essential and consumer goods have skyrocketed in the past few years, bottled water has remained the same for many years. “Six years ago, a 20 litre jar of water used to fetch Rs 80. Now it fetches Rs 60,” Sapkota complains. Retailers’ purchase prices vary but they sell them at same price.

Entrepreneurs blame retailers who go for products that cost less so that they have a higher profit margin, but retailers are not only the ones to blame. The Nepal Bottler Water Industries Association meeting held in September 2008 came up with a decision to work on uniform price for everyone’s benefit, but many entrepreneurs did not stick to it. "There is no mechanism for check and control as well," says Sujendra Shakya, who is also a member of the Association.

For the government, all packaged water falls under one category whether it is a bottling plant that conducts tests at source to ascertain the purity of water, subjects plant workers to health check-ups, and subjects its products to lab tests or simply filter purify and process underground water and bottle in a jar. The Department of Food Technology and Quality Control, under its regular food inspection activities, picks up different brands randomly from the market and analyses chemical parameters and pathogens. If they find any sub-standard products, the Food Act of 1966 allows the Department to take legal action against those selling the products.

But the entire process is so lengthy that the guilty party can flee or shut down shop and reopen their business under another name. Budget and human resource constraints have prevented the Department from taking bolder steps. The penalty for a violation of the Act is meagre – Rs 1,000 to Rs 2,000 for the first instance of violation. From the second instance onwards, the guilty party is fined Rs 2,000 to Rs 5,000 and/or jailed for six months to a year. The Food Act needs to be amended so that swift action can be taken against those violating the Act.

Meanwhile, entrepreneurs only hope that the government issues directives based on Good Manufacturing Practice guidelines which demand that these industries follow a strict guideline at every level in order to ensure the quality. But the current political scenario makes this a far-fetched dream.

 

Shuva Laxmi is a freelance journalist who also blogs at V.E.N.T.