A month without access to clean water. Imagine the upshot of a water company in the UK failing to produce clean water for a month; 24 hour news coverage, compensation claims, endless rhetoric from the local MP and complete disruption to daily life. That is exactly what I needed to really appreciate the impacts of life without safe water coming from a tap.

I recently had the pleasure of helping to lead a group in Ecuador throughout July, spending 7 days in the Amazon, 4 days of high altitude mountain trekking and the rest of the month staying in hostels. Whilst water is easy to find across Ecuador, from jungle to mountains to coast, and many hostels have piped water, finding potable water is much more difficult.

Outside the Cabana Photo: Catherine Walker

Whilst in the Amazon we stayed with a Shuar family in a small Cabaña about a day’s walk from their small village. Here, like in the village, the water source is a stream which is a 5 minute walk made harder due to the steep, slippery slope and calf height mud. Now that might not seem like a huge inconvenience, each person walks 5 minutes for their own water. But, consider the whole group (14 people) each person drinking around 4 liters of water/day, that’s 56 liters/ day and 392 liters/week. But don’t forget that this has to be boiled. That means collecting and drying wood, lighting a fire and someone boiling water to drink.

Fire ready to boil water
Inside the Cabana with the fire ready. Photo: Catherine Walker

That is a serious amount of effort, well to my soft mind and body anyway (I do not believe that it was much effort to the incredible family we stayed with, 5 minutes after all is not much and without our group the water requirements would be much lower).  It was, however, a real eye opener for me, how can water only 5 minutes away take so much effort to prepare? Clearly some communities around the world travel much further for water taking much more time and effort than we had to put in. I must admit that I thought I empathized well with these communities but I certainly didn’t.

I can’t stress just how much effort it is to collect water just a 5 minutes’ walk from your home, imagine each for all cooking, cleaning, toilet flushing and drinking you had to walk any distance from your home and then imagine that the water wasn’t fit to drink. Being a PhD student, and contrary to popular belief, I don’t have a lot of free time outside of work and there are certainly people much busier than me, if I had to do this each day I wouldn’t have time to work – well I would but I wouldn’t sleep. People without access to safe water are most likely to be living in rural areas and/or from poor and marginalized groups. Sadly these people may benefit the most from the reduced time and effort of collecting and producing safe water which impacts on all parts of their lives such as health, work, play and education, particularly for women and children. Luckily, the UN are way ahead of me on this (As you would expect!) and set out and achieved part of Millennium Development Goal 7C:

“To halve, by 2015, the proportion of the population without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation.” (MDGs):

The number of people without access to safe drinking water has been more than halved, with 2.6 billion gaining access to drinking water between 1990 and 2015 (UN report). However there is plenty of work still to be done. Currently around 159 million people (Greater than the population of Russia!) still use surface water as a source of drinking water and many of these communities are those which will be under most pressure from future water scarcity (MDG report 2015).

Whilst many of the impacts of safe water are well documented, an unwanted side effect is that of plastic waste. In Ecuador, like a number of countries, a large amount of bottled water is used, restaurants, hotels and cafes buy treated water in large plastic containers (which may or may not be recycled), and bottled water is extremely cheap (On your wallet, not the planet). Once out of the Amazon, staying largely in hostels and the comfort of a tent, I immediately turned my attention to bottled water. In the UK I rarely buy bottled water, but on previous travels I had relied heavily on bottled water to stay healthy and this time I subconsciously went to do the same.

At some point most of the group experienced travelers’ diarrhea, usually caused by faecal matter present in either food or drinking water. It is hard to avoid, water used by establishments preparing uncooked food and all water consumed (As well as for brushing teeth) needs to treated (Usually bottled). Our group used the Water-to-Go bottles which worked really well.

Water-to-Go Bottle
Water-to-Go Bottle

Yes, they are a plastic bottle, but contain replaceable filters which allow unsafe tap or river water to be consumed safely. These, or other similar products, have the potential to offer a slightly more sustainable way for travelers to avoid health issues and come highly recommended from our tummies! In the longer term however, the most sustainable solution is to provide safe drinking water, either piped or point of use treatment (Where water is treated in a home or small community), unfortunately the issues of providing high quality drinking water service is complicated and must be saved for another post. In the meantime, if you want to read more about giving up bottled water near you check out Ban the Bottle.