News / Africa

Environmentalists: Drinking Water Bags Harming Nigeria

A girl sells drinking water packed in small plastic bags on a street in the northern city of Maiduguri, Nigeria, August 2009.A girl sells drinking water packed in small plastic bags on a street in the northern city of Maiduguri, Nigeria, August 2009.
A girl sells drinking water packed in small plastic bags on a street in the northern city of Maiduguri, Nigeria, August 2009.
A girl sells drinking water packed in small plastic bags on a street in the northern city of Maiduguri, Nigeria, August 2009.
Heather Murdock
Most Nigerian homes do not have running water, or at least not water that is clean enough to drink. As a result, people drink water from small plastic bags sold on the streets. Environmental specialists say the bags are now clogging drainpipes, degrading sanitation and causing diseases.

Since the 1990s a familiar scene has regularly played out in Nigerian markets and busy intersections. The boy looks about six years old. Balanced on his head is a bucket of clear plastic bags, each containing about a half liter of water. The product is known as “pure water.”
For a little more than 10 cents, customers rip off a corner of the bag with their teeth and suck the water in. It is a cheap way to stay hydrated and a much needed business opportunity for children and teens struggling to stay alive in a country where most people live in abject poverty.

Growing issue

But environmental experts say it is becoming a big problem. Cletus Bebefagha, director of operations for the Delta State Waste Management Board in the southern Niger Delta region, said most people discard the bags on the streets when they are finished, causing a host of environmental problems.
“It’s a problem. Honestly, it’s a problem because they don’t decompose and by the time they get into any drain, that drain is plugged and it causes flooding,” he said.

The only alternative clean water sources for most people, he said, is bottled water, which from a long-term perspective is no better then bags. But because they are re-usable, he said, they tend to be less damaging in the short run.
“But you see economically not everybody can afford bottled water. If it’s bottled water we can manage. It’s easier to manage the bottles than the sachets,” said Bebefagha.

Finding solutions

The obvious solution would be for the government to provide drinking water, but many people say they need more immediate answers.  
Ben Anthony, an environmental activist, said the main problem is that drain blockages create breeding grounds for mosquitoes, which spread malaria, one of Nigeria’s biggest killers.
“If the federal government will provide water, the rate of sachet water consumption would drop and this problem would drop. If the federal government cannot provide water let people set up recycle bins. They can recycle this waste,” said Anthony.

Locals complain that blocked drains also make the roads smaller as the sewers fill with mud. Between too many vehicles stuck in traffic and toxins emitted from burning garbage that includes masses of small plastic bags, pharmacist Williams Onojega said he often feels sick from breathing bad air.
“If I were have the mindset to set up a business here - I’m seeing something like this and I’m just coming for the first time I’ll be like, ‘Man, this place is really dirty.’ It’s destroying business,” he said.

Bebefagha, from the waste management board, said his agency is trying to convince people to throw the bags in trash cans and is providing trash cans to do so. Beyond that, they are trying to work with the pure water producers to find a way to recycle the bags.
But for large-scale waste management, Bebefagha said, they lack basic resources like equipment and treatment plants. The best they can do right now, he said, is pick the bags they can out of the drainpipes, and carry them to dump sites.

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