Globally, the importance of clean, adequate supplies of potable drinking water is regarded as a key index of human development. Guyana, over many decades, has been unable to provide even all of its coastal population – far less its hinterland communities – with a regular and reliable supply of potable water. Arising out of this shortcoming we have witnessed a steady increase in the number of privately operated vending services that have stepped in to fill the breach.

In the face of a state-provided water supply service the quality of which had sunk well below the standard that could be considered fit for drinking and cooking purposes, the advent of water vendors has been widely welcomed (it would be difficult to find too many households that can afford to buy vended water, consuming the water that we get from our taps in coastal Guyana. The problem is that public thankfulness has appeared to extend to a point where the wholesomeness of what the vendors are offering appears to have been taken entirely for granted.

 Last week the Government Analyst Food & Drugs Department (GAFDD) delivered the disturbing news that, at least in some instances, assumptions about the quality of the vended water are far from universally accurate. We are being told by the GAFDD not only that around one third of the private potable water distributors in the capital have no licence to provide this service but worse, that what is on offer, again in some instances, falls below the testing standards for bacteria and chemicals. These are, to say the least, remarkable and alarming revelations.

The news, however, ought not to come as a complete surprise. Historically, closely monitoring adherence to laws and regulations that have a bearing on health and safety amongst the populace has been one of the standout weaknesses of our oversight state institutions. In truth, the recent GAFDD revelation about the shortcomings of vended water is just one of the many manifestations of unregulated, ineffectively monitored systems that have, as a consequence, either become dangerously inefficient or have simply fallen apart.

 The statement from the GAFDD on the potable water vending issue tells us that what we now know about the quality of much of the water that we consume derives from a recent exercise conducted over a six-month period involving the collecting and analysis of eighty-seven water samples from twenty- nine vendors in Georgetown and the Greater Georgetown areas. Analysis of the samples for microbiological and chemical parameters to verify compliance with safety requirements revealed fifteen (17%) of those samples were found to be “unsatisfactory” (quite what this means is unclear) and that of the twenty-nine vendors from whom samples were taken eleven were found to be operating without the necessary licence. Oddly enough, we are told nothing about the periodicity of these checks and – assuming that there have been previous ones – just what have been the findings in the past.

What the GAFDD had to say is not the sort of news that the consuming public would welcome particularly since, having turned to vendors for their water supplies several years ago, many of them are now, it seems, being told that the water that they have been using for drinking and cooking all these years was probably not all that safer than that which they have been receiving through their taps anyway.

It is the immediate response of the authorities to these revelations, however, that is baffling, the first being that “in the coming months” the GAFDD will publish a list of approved water processing facilities in the city (what this presumably means is that it will be safe to purchase water from those facilities) and the second, a warning to the still unnamed transgressors “to conform to all of the Department’s requirements as it relates to the sale and distribution of treated water in five-gallon bottles” as if that ‘warning’ is likely to be met with some kind of immediate and near universal compliance.

 So that since we still await the GAFDD’s list of vendors who are cleared to trade, the time frame for the release of that information being no more specific than “in the coming months” we will, presumably, remain pretty much in the dark as to which of the vendors we should steer clear of. Of course, however churlish as it might seem to some, the correct thing to do would be to simply issue what in labour circles is known as a ‘cease work’ order targeting both unlicensed vendors and those whose product does not meet the required standard so that the consuming public can be spared a guessing game. What, one might ask, is the point of “calling on all water processing factories to conform to all of the Department’s requirements as it relates to the sale and distribution of treated water in “five-gallon bottles” at this stage rather than immediately having the ones known to be delinquent cease to provide the service, in the public interest, until they get their operations in order.

it surely ought to be mandatory, as well, that all of the various “requirements” associated with offering potable water for sale  be posted on the premises of the various water distribution entities where they can be easily read by consumers. And is there any requirement that vendors   display prominently on their premises legible copies of their licences to sell drinking water as well as some sort of chart providing easily read information on the periodicity of the chemical and bacteriological checks carried out on the water that they sell? Beyond that, shouldn’t the vendors be required by law to prominently display on their premises some sort of verifiable proof of having been licensed to sell drinking water?

There are also laid-down procedures, according to the GAFDD dictating that “bottles used must be properly cleaned, sanitized, labelled and sealed and no funnel should be used to transfer water to bottles prior to sale and/or distribution.” These rules too are important and should be displayed on premises so that customers can be aware as to just how clean their water bottles are.

All of these issues should be addressed by the state entity/entities responsible for the enforcement of these basic regulations (not “in due course” but “immediately” and there is really no good reason why they have to take the proverbial ‘year and a day’ rather than be dealt with now as an important public health issue.

 Here, the question arises as to just how much of what is now being said in the GAFDD’s media release about regulations governing the vending of water had been in the public domain previously and whether or not, in the instance of an important service like the sale of drinking water, we ought not to have a much more planned and sustained relationship between the authorities and the consuming public. That is a matter that should surely arise as part of what ought to be a diligent probe into these disturbing revelations with a view to quickly correcting the various glaring flaws in the existing system. Of course – and while there is likely to be a major market for vended water for some time to come -that does not mean that we should become laid back on the issue of creating a national water distribution system to which there is universal access and which we can use for purposes, including drinking and cooking, without having to bother about just how safe it is.

 These alarming revelations about access to potable water in Guyana have been occurring against the backdrop of our endorsement of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’S) a collection of global goals set out in 2015. SDG target 6.1 calls for universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water. The recent GAFDD revelation points unerringly to the fact that in the matter of providing the population with potable water Guyana has got a monumental amount of catching up to do.

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