Water is our most important resource, but you never know when a disaster could compromise your local water supply. Whether you live in the city or in a more remote area, having a way to get clean water is crucial to keeping you safe from additional harm. In honor of emergency preparedness month, we’ve put together the information you need to ensure you have access to water that’s safe to drink.
Clean water threats
When drinking water is contaminated in municipal or developed areas, the immediate threat to human health is the introduction of waterborne pathogens—microscopic disease-causing bugs. These include bacteria, protozoa and viruses, all of which are normally removed by the city treatment center long before water ever flows out of your tap.
In a disaster situation, contamination of the existing municipal water supply can happen quickly. For example, a sewer line can break, intermixing sewage with your clean water supply, and introducing those pathogenic agents.
And natural disasters can damage a range of water systems. If, for example, an earthquake or landslide sends debris or sediment into a reservoir or breaks a water main, you could be forced to source drinking water from surface water, which is unsafe to drink without treatment.
In squalid conditions—especially following natural disasters—poor sanitation can quickly lead to pathogens from human and animal waste mixing with the drinking water. Being prepared for the unexpected will help ensure that you and your family avoid sickness from the water you drink.
Preparing for a water emergency
An individual’s water needs will vary depending on age, health and climate (water needs can double in hot temperatures). But in general, you should plan for a minimum of one gallon of water per person per day, to be used for drinking and sanitation purposes (food prep, washing dishes, brushing teeth, etc.). The best solution is to stock a supply of store-bought water (with expiration dates clearly marked) in a cool, dark place. At least a three-day supply, the CDC recommends.
But because you don’t know how long you could be without water, it’s also important to have a water treatment solution: a personal, portable treatment system that will remove the waterborne pathogens and other contaminants. These risks include:
- Viruses (e.g. norovirus, rotavirus and hepatitis A)—spread to humans by human fecal waste
- Bacteria (e.g. Salmonella and E. coli)—spread by humans & animals
- Protozoa (e.g. Giardia and Cryptosporidium)—spread by humans & animals
- Sediment/dirt/silt –not particularly harmful to health, but unpleasant or inhibiting
- Organics (e.g. petroleum, herbicides, pesticides, heavy metals and other chemicals)—harmful with repeated exposure
Your emergency water treatment solution must guard against the first three (the bugs) to protect you from immediate illness, but it’s best to remove all if you can. Of course, there are different options for getting there:
Microfilters will remove sediment, protozoa and bacteria from the water, and those that contain carbon will pull out many chemicals and other impurities, like tastes and odor.
To combat the tiniest of the pathogenic bugs—the viruses—you’ll need a purification solution. Of the options available, chemical and UV treatments are the easiest to use. However, while UV treatments can be good for neutralizing viruses in clear water, viruses can actually hide behind silt or sediment in murky water essentially avoiding deactivation by the UV. Also, UV won’t protect your water from cross-contamination the way that a chemical solution can.
A chlorine-based solution, for example, not only kills viruses (and bacteria and protozoa) in your water bottle but also maintains water purity long after the initial disinfection process, giving you a second line of defense against viruses that could be lurking on the bottle thread or lid, ready to re-infect your water.
Boiling water will also render it potable, killing all threats including viruses. However, boiling water can use a large amount of fuel, which may be a critical resource during emergency situations, and it doesn’t leave you with clear water.
Recommended water treatment systems
For emergency situations, it’s best to have a water treatment system that covers all threats to your water, and can also remove silt and sediment. We recommend the best-selling MSR® MiniWorks® EX Microfilter, which features a durable and effective carbon/ceramic element to remove protozoa, bacteria, particulates and organics, paired with MSR® Aquatabs water purification tablets, which render viruses inactive. Aquatabs come individually foil-wrapped and offer a long shelf life of five years.
Another reliable option is the MSR® SweetWater® Purifier System, a complete-package solution that includes the SweetWater® Microfilter and the chlorine-based SweetWater® Purifier Solution to effectively neutralize viruses.
For filtering large quantities of water, the MSR® AutoFlow™ Gravity Microfilter offers a convenient way to treat water for a large group; it removes the bacteria, protozoa and sediment. Then you can purify with Aquatabs for viral protection.
Your Plan B solutions
It’s always best to plan ahead for emergencies, but if you missed your window, here are important methods recommended by the CDC and also detailed in the federal government’s Resolved to Be Ready campaign, which allow you to work with resources you have at home.
- Start with the cleanest water possible. If your available water is murky or sandy, let the sediment settle, then pour the water into another container to help filter out the sediment.
- Boil your water. Be sure to maintain a rolling boil for a full minute. If you live at high altitudes, it’s safer to boil for 3 minutes.
- Use regular household bleach. The CDC recommends adding 16 drops (1/8 teaspoon) of unscented, liquid household bleach per gallon of water. Stir and let stand for 30 minutes before drinking.
- Distill your water to kill any resistant germs and remove other organics. Distilling requires boiling water and collecting only the condensed vapor.
As you can see, you have several options for disinfecting water in an emergency situation. However, since it pays to be prepared for the worst, use these tips to get your emergency water supply kit together—one that includes a personal water treatment system—so you’re in the best position to handle whatever may come.