Companies that sell bottled drinking water in the Lao capital Vientiane have pledged to upgrade the quality of their supplies following public complaints about safety standards in the industry and surprise government inspections on water production facilities.
During the September-October period, the Drinking Water Association in Vientiane received numerous complaints of unclean water in bottles consumers had purchased from local stores, according to an employee of a company in the capital.
The employee, who spoke to RFA’s Lao service on condition of anonymity, said that a group of drinking water companies held a meeting in response to the complaints to discuss water quality issues, how to resolve the complaints, and to prevent further safety issues.
He said the group also reported the issue to government officials in charge of drinking water quality in Vientiane. “They said that the companies are working to solve the problem soon,” the employee said. The government has acknowledged the issue of substandard quality in drinking water bottled for sale.
But he said that store owners may have tampered with the bottles which were found to contain unclean water in a bid to increase their supplies when there was a shortage. The store owners, he said, may have added tap water into the bottles and resold them to customers because they did not have enough drinking water to sell in their stores.
As recently as last month, only 40-50 drinking water companies were operating in the capital, each of which has the capacity to produce around 1,800 liters (475 gallons) of quality drinking water per day, he said, and the demand for bottled water often exceeds that volume.
One issue addressed by the group of companies during their meeting was the ease with which bottlecaps are produced to reseal bottles filled with what could be substandard water, the employee said.
The employee said that over the past two to three months, the Lao Department of Health had been inspecting official drinking water production facilities and had found that several of them are producing water of quality below safety standards set by the Ministry of Health’s Food and Drug Department.
Some 140 drinking water plants had temporarily shut themselves down ahead of a city-wide safety check last month, said the employee. But many of them had since reopened, he added. He said that 187 factories were in operation in Vientiane as of Wednesday.
In August, the Vientiane Times reported that more than 90 out of 150 factories producing drinking water in the capital were distributing their products to the public despite lacking the necessary certification from the Food and Drug Department.
The factories in question had been told to improve the standard of their operations, but had illegally sold drinking water before completing the necessary improvements and inviting officials to inspect their production standards.
According to the Vientiane Times, the industry and commerce sector is responsible for approving a drinking water facility. Once the approval process is complete, the factory owner must obtain a letter of approval from the Food and Drug Department before distributing drinking water. “Many businesspeople have ignored this requirement as they don’t want to lose profit while struggling to meet the standards required,” the daily said.
Critics have called for the municipal government to publish a list of factories that comply and don’t comply with safety standards so that the public is informed of which companies to buy water from and industry players have more incentive to abide by the law.
In 2009, health officials closed down 18 drinking water plants after their products were found to be substandard ahead of the 25th Southeast Asian (SEA) Games in Vientiane