So ubiquitous is pure water in Accra that it wasn’t until I spoke with Justin Stoler, a University of Miami researcher who studies sachet water, that I realized how recent a phenomenon it is, and how significant. The rise of sachet water has created a huge urban economy, its very own black market, an environmental disaster and a private-sector-driven public health coup.
Only two water treatment plants supply the entire city, and the Accra Metropolitan Authority has not been able to install new water connections nearly fast enough to keep up with rapid population growth. The Ghana Water Company, Ltd. can only produce enough water at any given time to fill about half of Accra’s pipe network, according to Stoler’s research.
So the public has turned to the private sector for their water. As recently as the mid 1990s, vendors sold drinking water by the cup or in plastic bags that were tied up individually at the point of sale. In the late ’90s, though, a small innovation changed everything: Someone started filling plastic sleeves of treated water and heat-sealing them, creating water-to-go on demand.
Quickly, Stoler says, the industry exploded. The big bottled water companies started manufacturing sachet water, and a cottage industry grew up around sachet water production. Individuals and small companies started packaging water, most of which was simply siphoned out of regular taps. And a supply chain grew around it: Truck and cart drivers distribute the water to every corner of the city. The “job” of the informal pure-water street vendor was born.As so often happens in life, no good deed goes unpunished, and the side effect of the sachets is a growing environmental problem as the empty sleeves wind up in gutters and elsewhere they don't belong.
Every year, a ban on plastic bags, which would include the sachets, is floated. But the consequences of such a move could be severe. “Water access for a significant number of urban poor would be severely marginalized if the government banned sachets as part of a larger ban on plastic bags,” writes Stoler and his colleagues in one study.There have a been a few entrepreneurial attempts to deal with the problem, but for the most part this is a side-effect that will apparently have to get a lot worse before the public is willing to deal with it.