When a 23-year-old journalist, Thelma Amedeku, sought medical attention at the Legon Hospital in January 2023, she tested positive for typhoid.
Haruna Ibrahim Sadik, the physician assistant who attended to Ms Amedeku, advised her to stop drinking sachet water, often called “pure water”.
“There are thousands of people producing [sachet] water and you cannot vouch for how purified the water is,” Mr Sadik said.
Thelma has recovered but told The Fourth Estate that the sickness traumatised her so much that she is now extremely cautious of the brands of sachet water she drinks.
Given the notion most Ghanaians have about tap water being unsafe to drink, those who cannot afford bottled water have turned to sachet water. This has led to a booming sachet water industry with questionable standards.
The regulatory standards for sachet water are determined by the Food and Drugs Authority (FDA), whose regulatory functions include product registration, premises registration and post-approval market surveillance of food and drugs. It also has responsibility for food-and water-borne disease surveillance and investigation, among others.
Despite the work of the FDA, there appear to be hundreds of unlicensed sachet water brands sold in Ghana. In 2022, The Fourth Estate wrote to the FDA for a list of all registered sachet water brands in the Greater Accra Region as of August 2022.
The Fourth Estate then randomly picked 300 used bags of sachet water brands in markets and lorry parks in the Greater Accra Region in order to ascertain those actually registered with the FDA to sell on the market. The specific locations visited were Madina Market, Dodowa Market, Oyibi Station, Tema Community One, Ashaiman, Accra Central (Tema Station, Makola), Agbogbloshie Market, and Kaneshie Station.
The Fourth Estate discovered, after crosschecking with the FDA, that 142 out of the 300 sachet water brands, representing 47.3% of our sample, were not registered with the FDA.
The FDA did not confirm the registration of two other brands on The Fourth Estate’s list, neither are these two brands on the list of registered sachet water brands on the authority’s website.
In an email response to The Fourth Estate, the FDA said any brand that was not on the list it released to The Fourth Estate or on its website was not registered.
This makes 144 the list of unregistered brands on our list. If the advice of the physician who treated Thelma is anything to go by, then, these unregistered brands make sachet water consumers vulnerable to water-borne diseases, including typhoid.
A worrying typhoid statistics
According to health experts, typhoid fever, which Thelma Amedeku was diagnosed with, is caused by the bacterium Salmonella Typhi, usually spread through contaminated food or water.
The Ghana Health Service (GHS) has indicated that “lack of safe drinking water” is the second major cause of typhoid fever cases in Accra. In 2022, typhoid fever was the fifth most prevalent disease in the Greater Accra Region. Statistics from the GHS also indicate at least two out of every 10 people in Accra suffer from typhoid.
In the past five years, diarrhoea caused by drinking unsafe water also ranked between fifth and eighth among the top 10 diseases in the Greater Accra region.
In 2022, the Director for Field Operations of the Ghana Statistical Services (GSS), Dr Peter Takyi Peprah, described the level of contamination of sachet water in Accra as “scary” because the GSS had “detected” E. coli—an indicator of faecal contamination – in the drinking water of households in the region.
He was making a presentation on the 2021 Population and Housing Census (PHC), which stated that the majority (70.7%) of inhabitants of the Greater Accra Region used sachet water as their main source of drinking water.
The GSS 2017/2018 Ghana Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey of Accra found that the drinking water in more than half (50.4%) of households in the region was at risk of faecal contamination.
The Vice President of the National Association of Sachet and Packaged Water Producers (NASPWP), Richard Abotsivia, said the situation was far worse than what The Fourth Estate found.
He said there were over 2,000 unregistered sachet water producers operating openly on the blind side of the FDA. This means every single day, six out of every 10 residents in Accra may be at risk of suffering Thelma Amedeku’s health condition due to inadequate regulatory supervision on the part of the FDA.
According to him, most of the sachet water producers listed by the FDA as registered have not even been to the authority’s office.
“60 per cent of those who have registered with the FDA don’t even know where the FDA’s office is. FDA doesn’t know them,” he said.
He added that “if FDA gives you a number of about 100 people producing now, you have about 60 additional producers who have not registered.”
The FDA declined an interview with The Fourth Estate. The authority, however, responded in an e-mail and said it did not have enough logistics and personnel to stop illegal sachet water producers.
“Clients hide in some corners unknown to FDA to carry out production activities. Some produce at night, making it very difficult locating their hideout,” the FDA noted.
The Fourth Estate visited some of the unlicensed companies at random to ascertain the conditions under which the so-called ‘pure water’ were produced.
At Palm Wine Junction, close to the MTN mast at Trade Fair in Accra, the production of Best Choice Natural Mineral Water was going on in earnest in a blue and white container. Both doors to the container were left wide open throughout the operation. About 100 metres from the container, is a busy public toilet. Behind the public toilet was a choked open drain. The drain leads directly to the blue and white container.
Even though Best Choice Natural Mineral Water has an FDA number on its packaging, the FDA indicated to The Fourth Estate in a Right to Information request that the product name was not registered by the company producing it.
The team also visited the production site of Care Ice Purified Mineral Water. Care Ice’s licence, according to the FDA, had expired. However, when The Fourth Estate visited its premises at Old Ashongman, it was busy producing. Two women sat in front of water-producing machines packing the filled sachets into bags. A young man was seen arranging the bags ostensibly for sale.
At House Number N/2 132 in Ashaiman Official Town, Premier Drop Filtered Drinking Water was being produced right beside a dusty road. The doors to the two rooms in which the production was going on were ajar. While one man sat beside the production machine packing the filled sachets into bags, another bare-chested man arranged the bags. Despite what appeared like unhygienic conditions under which water was being produced, Premier Drop is in the good books of FDA’s registered sachet water producers.
Fear God Drinking Water is produced in a building along the road opposite the St. Augustine Catholic Church at Roman Down in Ashaiman. The producers of this brand worked in the full view of the public although they were not registered. At the factory, bags of sachet water were strewn about, and workers walked in and out from the street into the production room in their slippers.
Not far from Fear God Drinking Water is Rings Filtered Drinking Water. Rings water is produced in the Boys Quarters of a two-storey residential building. This company has no FDA number on its sachet; neither is it on the FDA’s website.
Directly opposite the Ashaiman Municipal Assembly is Queens Filtered Mineral Water. The product is made in a small dark room. The water is actually produced by Queens Hotel. There is no FDA number on the brand’s sachet. Neither can the brand be found on FDA’s website.
The NASPWP Vice President, Richard Abotsivia, said sachet water producers were required by law to renew their licence every three years, but most of the producers did not return to the FDA after they obtained their licenses. He said there were many producers that were once registered but now produced without permits.
For example, 27 out of the 144 unregistered brands The Fourth Estate discovered were still producing although their licences had expired.
“They’ve not gone back to renew. So, even though they may have an FDA number, the number has expired. Then we have others too who have not even visited the FDA at all,” Mr Abotsivia told The Fourth Estate.
Sanctions and prosecutions
The Public Health Act, 2012, (Act 851) states that individuals who “manufacture…, distribute, sell or supply food or expose food for sale” without the authorization of the FDA are “liable on summary conviction to a fine of not less than one thousand penalty units and not more than seven thousand five hundred penalty units or to a term of imprisonment of not less than four years and not more than fifteen years or to both”.
When The Fourth Estate asked about the number of arrests and prosecutions facilitated by the FDA concerning the production of illegal sachet water, the authority did not provide any figures, but indicated that “in cases of arrest, we shut down facilities, sanction them to pay a fine and bring them into compliance.”
The FDA said it was “more focused” on ensuring that illegal producers of sachet water complied with its regulations rather than processing them for prosecution.