Travel Health

To Drink the Local Water?

Is it any better than the bottled water? Does it make you more of a hard-core traveler?

Drinking the local water was something that I once felt set me apart from the other travelers who all needed their special water in a plastic bottle tapped god knows where. I aspired to live like the locals wherever I went and so across the Middle East and India, I drank water from wells, mountain springs and where it was pumped out of the ground. I quickly learnt that government water invariably sentenced me to ten metre dashes to the nearest bathroom but otherwise I was happy to drink what the locals drank.

I reasoned that local water probably gave me immunity against infections and viruses, that it was somehow charged with the magnetic energy of the earth and in any event, it had to be better than the bottled water that had been stuck on a shelf in a dusty storage room for a year and a half.

And in places like India, who knew where that water had been bottled in the first place?

I drank the local water in Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, India, Syria, Jordan, Morocco and considered myself smarter than all the guidebook warnings until I came to Mexico and noticed that just about everyone drank bottled water. In fact, trucks selling the stuff terrorised everyone with loudspeakers on top of the hood blaring out sales pitches as they tore through the quiet back streets. I heard that there might have been heavy metals in the water due to unscrupulous mining activities and left it at that.

Then I came to Lake Atitlan in Guatemala and a local woman cracked up laughing me when she heard me extolling the virtues of the local water. Taking me by the hand, she showed me just where it came from: my ‘spring’ had passed two villages where the locals threw out all their garbage, the run off of several community bathrooms and fields where animals grazed.

What Can Drinking the Local Water Do to You?

What the woman from Guatemala helped me understand was that in most of the third world, only people who can’t afford to do otherwise drink the local water. Because with appalling local infrastructure the water can be infected by local sewage, decomposing animals, rat urine and any other number of the dark side of Nature.

Amongst some of the more fun things you might catch are:

– amoebas – cholera – hepetitus – typhoid, – e-coli – salmonella – guinea worm

and any other number of water-borne illnesses for all the family.

So Why Don’t the Locals Die From the Water?

Well, they do.

But not usually in huge numbers as immunity builds up from exposure to pathogens and there’s probably some genetic resistance to certain forms of illness. None of which you have.

We’re not saying that you’ll die from drinking bad local water but you are playing Russian Roulette with your health. Some of the diseases mentioned above can take years to recover from and are just no fun at all.

So Which Local Water Can Be Drunk Safely?

You’ll be okay if you drink from:

– Springs that the locals testify as good (The earth itself acts as a pretty good filter).

– Mountain streams that are above any grazing pastures.

– Rain water.

– Local wells that are considered to be good but even here remember the story of local resistance and think about boiling it.

What If There’s No Good Water Available?

If you’re miles from anywhere that sells bottled water and you don’t trust the water that the locals are drinking then there are a few options:

– Ask someone to boil the water for you, preferably for at least 12 minutes.

– Drink beer and soft drinks.

– Add iodine drops although this shouldn’t be a long term solution.

– Buy and carry a water purifying kit

Water, Water, Everywhere

We felt compelled to just give travelers some decent advice on drinking local water but there’s no need to get too paranoid. Nietzsche was probably right in reckoning that ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ and in a crazy, cosmic kind of way, if illness is coming your way it’ll probably find you anyhow.

But that’s no reason to make it any easier for the pathogens to find you.

  • Matti Törmä

    Something I’ve found handy on my trips is a “coffee heater” as it’s called in India, a small, pocket-size submersible water heater. Basically it’s just the heating element, bit of wire and a plug. Put the element in a cup, plug it in (and don’t touch it while it’s plugged!) and it’ll boil the water for you. Good for making water safe (tastes like sh-t anyway), making noodles, porridge or even boiled veggies. Costs about 1 eur (60 inr).

    Some places, even surprising ones, you actually can drink the water. I’ve found I’m pretty much OK with tap water all around Europe, including South and East. Places with poor sanitation and too many people it’s most likely not good to drink.

    If you choose to take the risk with water or street food, in many developing countries you can buy cheap and effective antibiotics without a prescription at any pharmacy – maybe a good idea to carry some around with you wherever you go, just to nail that stomach bug in case it hits you at a moment you can’t afford to be sick. Be warned that taking antibiotics too often or for no reason is not good for you or people in general. Antibiotics and other stuff from third world pharmacies would be a good topic for another health article here.

  • BOB

    I wear a typhoid arm badge and that shit sucked.