A large chunk of the world has a problem that most North Americans and Europeans don’t consider when they turn on the tap: clean water (or rather the absence thereof). Here’s a guide to clean water (or lack thereof) around the world, and how you can avoid problems when you’re traveling and living in places where clean water isn’t a given.
My Experience with Clean Water (or Not)
I remember being in Nepal and telling somebody that I brushed my teeth with the tap water; “it’s not a problem, is it?” I asked when I saw the look of horror on their face. They told me about the numerous outbreaks of cholera in our neighbourhood that week. The cause of the cholera outbreak? The tap water.
Although you’d think I learned something there, I had to re-learn it – the hard way – in Peru…a few times over. I’m not sure how I contracted the first parasite (it could have been callously brushing my teeth with tap water, washing my vegetables in it and not drying them properly, or eating an otherwise contaminated food), but suffice it to say, it was a gastronomically unpleasant experience. (There are many types of parasites, but the parasite de rigueur in this part of Peru is giardia).
After a week of being violently ill (diarrhoea, debilitating stomach cramps, and gas/burps producing rotten egg smells that I refused to own) and realizing it wasn’t going to go away on its own, I staggered into the local pharmacy and with my limited Spanish said “parasito”. Within seconds, I had a three-day course of medication (for $10) that cleaned everything up lickedy-split.
But I still hadn’t learned my lesson. While enjoying Lima on my way out of the country enroute to spending a summer in Canada, I drank the tap water in the hotel (which was said to be drinkable but who knows), and during one ceviche meal at a particularly local restaurant, I drank the watered-down-juice-like-concoction that came with the meal. Whatever the cause was, I suffered another week of violent illness in Canada before I submitted to a trip to the doctor, tests, and a course of medication that all-in, cost me over $150. (I’ve seen doctors around the world, and Canada is one of the most expensive places for medical visits and prescriptions in my experience).
I’ve learned my lesson now.
How Travelers Can Get Clean Water
Luckily, there are a variety of ways travelers can get clean water. Some are better than others. For example, I abhor the cost – and waste – of buying bottled water. There are alternatives, which I always try to make use of.
Here’s a rundown of my favourite, most practical clean water tools:
Fill up at Your Hotel
Most travellers carry water bottles with them; and many hotels/hostels in countries with dodgy water have water coolers in the lobby or restaurant area. Don’t forget to use clean water to brush your teeth, and if you’re cooking in a kitchen, use clean water to wash fruit/veggies.
Carry a SteriPEN
The SteriPEN is an ultraviolet water purifier that fits in your pocket and kills the bacteria and viruses that can live in water. I got one in 2008, and used it throughout a few months in Asia, saving the waste of 360 bottles of water, and saving money too.
It takes a bit of a leap of faith to shine this light in your tap water and to trust that it’s really clean water, but it worked a charm.
Use a Water Bottle With a Filter
Use a Toothbrush that Doesn’t Require Water?
I currently use a pretty cool toothbrush that doesn’t actually require water in order to clean your teeth: the ion5 solar-powered oxygenating toothbrush. Although I thought it was gimmicky when I first heard of it, as you can read in my review of it, I love mine through and through.
Bonus Tip: Beware of What/Where You Eat
Problems with clean water are broad; beware of drinks served with ice, as well as fresh produce. I was given a mantra years ago that has never left me:
“If you can’t peel it or boil it, don’t eat it”.
At restaurants, use this phrase to evaluate what you can/can’t eat; unless you know for sure that their fresh produce is processed with clean water, salads are a no-no, along with fruit like apples, strawberries, and, well, anything that isn’t peeled or boiled.
When preparing food on your own, make sure any produce that isn’t peeled or boiled is washed with clean water (some people also use iodine) and dried.
How I Get Clean Water in my House in Peru
Locals who live here in Peru have a few different ways of ensuring they have clean water; a few of my friends boil their daily rations of water each morning. In most places you only need to boil the water for a minute or two, but since the high altitude of the Peruvian Andes makes water boil at a lower temperature, it’s necessary to boil it for at least 12 minutes.
Instead, I use a water filtration system. It’s very simple, involving the use of gravity to syphon water from one bucket to the next through a filter. I’ve constantly got a ration of water dripping through the filter system so I have clean water to drink, prepare food with, and brush my teeth with.
So far….so good.
Just In Case….
Even using all these precautions for drinking clean water, I’ve learned not to leave anything to chance. Because a medical emergency abroad (especially in the wrong place) can be financially devastating. So to cover my butt, I always have travel insurance (or expat insurance – which is an international medical health plan, designed for full-time travelers).
From experience (including claims experience), I recommend World Nomads. They’re the most flexible for insurance, allowing you to apply for and renew it from abroad. Get a free quote here.
Note: If you end up purchasing an insurance policy through this widget, I will receive a small commission. This in no way affects your price, and helps me to keep The Professional Hobo going as a lifestyle travel resource. Thank you in advance for your support!