Research has shown that upwards of 80% of diseases worldwide are waterborne, and while developed countries generally treat their public water supplies, this is sadly not always the case with many developing nations.
A range of harmful bacteria including E. coli and salmonella, parasites, and viruses, along with various toxic chemicals, find their way into the drinking water of many countries around the world. Drinking poorly treated or unfiltered water can lead to serious illnesses such as typhoid, cholera, giardia, and hepatitis A just to name a few.
Many of us take having easy access to safe drinking water for granted, but hundreds of millions of people around the world are forced to consume contaminated water that hasn’t been treated properly.
There are also times when even the residents in areas of well-developed countries including the U.S. and Australia will be issued a boil water notice or alert to treat their tap water due to the community’s water supply being contaminated whether it be because of flooding or problems with water treatment plants.
If you’re planning to travel to a destination where the local water is deemed unfit, here are some of the top methods for making sure the water you consume is safe to drink.
Ways to Ensure Safe Drinking Water While Traveling
Many people who travel to countries where it is generally deemed unsafe to drink from the tap simply resort to buying bottled water. Bottled water is available everywhere these days from the airport to hotels and attractions.
While simply sticking to bottled water while traveling will likely ensure that what you’re drinking is safe, it can be quite an expensive way to enjoy clean water and you often times never know what exactly is in that bottled water you just purchased. Many bottled water labels omit added ingredients or where exactly it was sourced from.
There has been much debate on whether drinking bottled water is actually “poisoning” us with microplastics that get leached from the cheap plastic that bottles are constructed from. Recent studies have shown that upwards of 90% of bottled water sold worldwide contain microplastics.
Pro tip: While this may seem scary and put you off ever buying another bottle again, you must also consider there have been additional studies that show as much as 80% of tap water samples from around the world also contain plastic particles. The general idea is that plastics are everywhere these days and it can be hard to avoid them.
Thankfully, the majority of microplastics we consume will pass through our digestive systems with no ill effect. For the bits that remain in our systems, not enough research has been done to show what the potential serious health implications are if any.
There is also the environmental impact to consider with bottled water. The sheer volume of cheap plastic bottles that are being thrown out every day from bottled water is mind-boggling.
You also need to consider that in many developing countries, recycling programs may be nonexistent which means these bottles simply end up in landfills.
If you are planning on sticking to bottled water, the most economical route is to buy in bulk from a supermarket where you will pay a fraction per bottle when compared to buying bottles of water individually from attractions, hotels, and cafes.
UV and Chemical Treatments
You can also create safe water by using UV and chemical treatments. Both are effective at eliminating most bacteria, parasites, and viruses.
Using a UV light device such as a SteriPEN helps to damage the cellular function of microorganisms so that they cannot reproduce. This treatment also doesn’t add extra tastes to water that may be deemed unpleasant.
Some drawbacks with portable UV water purification devices that are often used for traveling include the need to first filter cloudy water to ensure the device can function properly and the fact you can usually only treat small amounts of water at a time.
Classic chemical water treatment methods that utilize chlorine or Iodine drops/tablets often fail to kill some parasites and often gives the water a poor taste according to some people. A much better chemical treatment involves using chlorine dioxide.
Chlorine dioxide is a simple purification method that’s easy to pack for shorter trips. It comes in both tablets and drops, both of which are non-toxic and quite effective for treating water.
The one downfall with chemical treatments is that you must wait for a period of time after adding the drops/tablets to your water to ensure it has time to do its work.
The length of time needed for chemical treatments will vary depending on the product, the temperature of the water, and the clarity of the water. Both of these treatments are considered to be purification methods and not simply just filter methods.
Filter methods, such as using a Lifestraw or bottle filter will fail to eliminate viruses, whereas UV and chemical treatments will get rid of viruses.
Water Bottles with Filters
There are countless filtered water bottles on the market which are available at sporting goods and outdoor/camping stores but many of these are simply filter systems and not purification systems.
Despite this, they remain one of the most common types of water filters for backpacking.
You need to look carefully at the item specs to ensure a bottle offers UV or chemical treatment in order to protect yourself from viruses.
If you do go with a simple filtered water bottle which does still remove bacteria and parasites, simply carry chlorine dioxide drops to further purify the filtered water by removing potential viruses.
Filtered water bottles are a good option for when you only require small amounts of drinking water such as on a short day hike.
Another option is the straw-like filter devices that allow you to drink straight from natural water sources and skip the bottle altogether. They usually weigh just a few ounces and can last up to filtering 1,000 gallons, but won’t usually remove viruses, just bacteria and parasites.
Gravity Water Filter System
One of the earliest water filtration systems developed, gravity water filtration systems are good at filtering high volumes of water. The flexible bag type systems are great for camping or trekking trips where you will be remote and without access to city water or electricity.
As its name suggests, gravity filtration bags use gravity to treat water. Some systems consist of a flexible bag, bladder hose, filter, and hanging strap.
These systems come in handy when you want to fill a number of bottles of water for several members of your family instead of each person having to purchase a separate filtered water bottle or similar device.
The filter on some gravity filtration bags consists of a two-stage system, one being a hollow membrane and the other a carbon filter. Together, these filters will eliminate 99% of bacteria, parasites, and microplastics but will fall short of removing viruses.
The bags are quite useful for removing pesticides, herbicides, sand, and dirt which could be common when getting water from natural sources when camping or trekking.
Some drawbacks of gravity bag filters are that the filters have a lifespan (number of liters they can effectively treat), air bubbles can get trapped in the filter which will need to be purged in order to achieve the optimal flow rate of 1 liter per 8 minutes, and you often have to hold the hose into your water bottle or develop a strategy that will hold the hose firmly in place.
If you have access to a heating source such as a normal stove, portable camp stove, hot plate, or kettle, simply boiling water can make it safe to consume.
Boiling water at a rolling boil for 1 minute, or 3 minutes at high elevations, can kill or inactivate bacteria, parasites, and viruses.
As stated before, local governments often issue boil water notices when they discover the city water has been deemed unsafe to drink for whatever reason.
While boiling water is good at creating safe drinking water short term, the method should not be used for extended periods if possible.
There are a number of drawbacks to the boil water method including the fact it won’t remove harmful metals, minerals, or chemicals. Boiling also usually fails to improve the look, taste, and smell of water that requires treatment.
You then have the cost of fuel needed to boil the water as well as being required to wait until the water has cooled to drink your treated water. The boiled water will need to be stored in a clean container once cooled and offers no residual protection like that of chemically treated water.
The best strategy for deciding which water treatment option is right for you is to consider where you are traveling to, how long you plan on traveling, and the facilities/resources you will have access to.
You will also want to consider how contaminated the local water is likely to be, and what method will be the easiest to use for the amount of treated water you will require.
In addition to making sure you use a treatment method to ensure you’re drinking clean water, remember that brushing your teeth with contaminated tap water, ordering ice from restaurants that was sourced from the unsafe taps, and inadvertently consuming tap water while showering can also lead to contracting waterborne illness.
Filters are becoming more common even in developing nations. We just returned from a 5 month Panama trip; filters became the norm in any remote areas. However, Panama has a state of the art treatment facility. Tap water is safe to drink and actually quite good throughout much of the country save Bocas Del Toro and more remote spots.
Thanks for sharing your experience in Panama Ryan, agreed actually I too am finding it more and more common for people to use filters in developing nations as well, even in places like America and Australia often depending on the state and neighborhood you’re in, it can be a necessity. So always good to have on hand!