Water safety isn’t a sexy topic. But whether you’re planning an offbeat expedition, action-packed adventure or even a stay in a fancy hotel, it’s one of the most crucial issues for travellers. Imbibing contaminated water can ruin a trip, and isn’t just an issue for those camping out. Here’s how to ensure that bad water doesn’t dampen your fun.
First, ensure you’re up-to-date with all the necessary jabs and boosters to protect against waterborne nasties such as typhoid, cholera and hepatitis A. The majority of truly waterborne infections are surprisingly rare though, says Dr Jane Wilson-Howarth, Wanderlust’s medical guru: “Most cases of travellers’ tummy are caused by unhygienically prepared solid foods rather than drinks,” she explains. Dr Jane advises that fruits or salads are risky not because they may be prepared or washed with local water, but due to contamination during growing or through handling with unwashed hands.
Next, research the chemicals and equipment available for sterilising water. There are various options; the best one for you will depend on your preferences and travel plans. Ignorance of how to make water safe increases your risk of dehydration, as well as gastrointestinal illness – get clued up.
How to recognise safe water
Common sense is key. Extreme adventurer Sam McConnell
has led over 100 teams across African deserts, from the Namib to the Sinai. He says: “If water looks dirty and smells bad, it’s probably going to make you sick, or worse. If it looks clean but has a greasy film on it, it is probably contaminated.” Wellwater tends to be safe, Sam adds: “Local people will protect the water supply and not allow it to be contaminated.”
But really it’s near impossible to judge whether water is safe or not. While water in fast-flowing, backcountry streams may look pure, it can still be polluted; humans, domestic pets, pack animals and wildlife can all taint such sources. Paul Goodyer, CEO of gear retailer Nomad Travel, advises playing it safe: “Unless you’re going to travel with a microscope, it’s safer to assume that all water is suspect. Even in some developing countries the water is really good in some areas and bad in others.”
According to crisis charity Water.org, 780 million people in the world lack access to clean water; the majority of those live in Africa. “They have poor sanitation and hygiene, hence the issue with drinking water being contaminated with fecal matter,” explains Sam. “In the Middle Ages, people in Europe drank beer instead of water, as it was safer.”
But Paul reckons it’s less about the location and more about how the water’s been stored and whether it’s been left to stagnate: “Anything that comes directly from a mains is probably better; anything held in tanks is probably worse.”
How to make water safe
The simplest technique is brewing up. “Bring water to a good rolling boil – such wet heat is destructive to almost all microbes,” says Dr Jane. “Anyone who is very young, old, frail or immuno-compromised might put boiling water into a thermos – keeping hot water hot improves sterility.”
You can get help with water boiling from people you meet on the road, adds Paul: “In countries where the water source is bad, the place that you’re staying will often boil water for you.”
Boiling is harder for those staying outdoors. Also, Sam argues, it takes time and fuel, and can be less effective at high altitudes (where water boils at a lower temperature). He champions chemical treatment: “The most low-tech method used to be adding iodine. This has been superseded by Puritabs, which are just as easy and foul-tasting, but are chlorine-based. On the packet is a warning: ‘hazardous to eyes, skin; will fade dye and damage carpeting’. If it fades your jeans and destroys your flooring, it’s definitely going to kill germs.” To eliminate the taste, Dr Jane recommends adding vitamin C powder or tablets after purification.
Then there’s the filtration method of purification that removes all the particulates from the water so that it looks nice and tastes, according to Sam, “like a fresh spring”. But do remember that in order to keep the filters working, they’ll need to be regularly replaced.
Another option is a SteriPEN. These handheld purifiers use UV light to destroy germs’ ability to reproduce. A SteriPEN Traveler can purify half a litre of water in 48 seconds, a litre in 90 seconds and is effective regardless of whether the water’s drunk immediately or stored for later.
What should I pack?
Take a medical kit containing water disinfectant agents such as chlorine tablets, obtained from pharmacies or outdoor equipment stores. They can be hazardous if used incorrectly, so follow the instructions. Fans of filtration should know that Sam used three large lifeboat pumps on his 2011 Skeleton Coast Expedition: “They were about the size of a bazooka, and weighed as much! There are smaller, cheaper ones on the market though, and also bottles with filters built in.”
One such bottle is Water-to- Go’s Filtration System – it has a filter in the top that’s proven to remove 99.9% of all microbiological contaminants. Filters can get clogged with sediment though, so it’s worth using a thick piece of cloth or a Millbank bag (a portable filtration device made of tightly woven canvas) to sieve the water first.
Remember that cloths and some filters will only get rid of sand, mud and silt; so in that case you will need to use some form of chemical sterilisation or heat too. Correctly using these purification measures should ensure that your water is safe to drink – though note that water contaminated with certain chemicals, heavy metals or radioactive material must still be avoided, even after sterilisation. Main image: Clean water (Shutterstock)