Jessica Vapnek on Packaged-Water Regulation

Published on: Author: Dave Owen

A few days ago, the New York Times ran an op-ed about the pervasive problems Pakistanis face accessing drinking water. Tap water is available in many places in Pakistan, but drinking it is a health risk; according to one recent report, forty percent of all deaths in Pakistan result from infectious diseases contracted by drinking contaminated water. This, sadly, is not a unique circumstance. Even in the United States, drinking-water fiascoes have become disturbingly frequent, but our troubles are minor compared to those of many places in the world. Drinking-water supply remains one of the world’s greatest public-health challenges.

In many countries, the primary answer to this problem is to drink packaged water. But as Professor Jessica Vapnek and Ashley Williams explain in a recent article titled “Regulating the Packaged Water Industry in Africa,” a switch to packaged water, though sometimes modestly helpful, is far from a complete solution. At worst, that packaged water may come straight from the same taps that distribute contaminated water. Packaged water also tends to be far more expensive than water from the tap. And once the package is empty, it becomes trash, often in places where trash-collection services are uneven. Often that trash blocks stormwater-drainage systems, increasing flooding and mosquito-borne diseases, and thus creating a second set of adverse health impacts. Packaged water also has advantages; most importantly, it is storable and portable, both of which can be particularly important in places where taps run unpredictably. And sometimes it is of better quality than tap water. But on the whole, the packaged-water industry is underregulated and dangerously unsafe.

In a perfect world, the response to this problem would be better pollution prevention and better drinking-water-treatment infrastructure, so that every tap runs clean and so that bottled or packaged water is unnecessary. But in the meantime, a second-best answer is better regulation of the packaged-water industry. Professor Vapnek and Williams explain how this can be done. Their article describes a model regulatory program for a packaged-water industry in a low-income or low-to-moderate income country (an LMIC). That description offers a detailed how-to guide for countries hoping to enact legislation ensuring that their packaged-water industries are more reliable and safe.

Professor Vapnek and Williams follow this discussion with two detailed appendices. The first appendix describes an inquiry into current packaged-water regulation in Ghana, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone. The second uses a comprehensive literature review to take stock of the quality of packaged water in LMICs worldwide. The results of these studies underscore the importance of their prescriptions for better regulation, though they do also contain occasional glimmers of hope. Most importantly, while Professor Vapnek and Williams find that regulatory systems are underdeveloped and contamination of packaged water is pervasive, the countries they studied have at least begun to build the foundations of regulatory systems. They have ample work to do, but they are not beginning on a completely blank slate.

To many American readers, a study of packaged water in sub-Saharan Africa may seem somewhat obscure (though bottled water does also generate controversies here). But there are few areas in which legal change could offer a larger public-health payoff. Hopefully, this article will help advance important reforms.