“Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink” (the rime of the ancient mariner)

Because it’s so hot in the tropics you need to drink a lot of water to stay hydrated; but how safe is the water to drink?

Years ago I was trekking up the Peshawar valley in Pakistan and drinking the water straight from the crystal clean river that runs through it.  A few days later I saw some of the locals squatting in the river and realised that they used it as a toilet.  Not long after that I came down with amoebic dysentery and, a couple of months later when I returned to the UK, I’d lost 20% of my body weight and looked like a concentration camp survivor.

In Africa I caught Giardia from the water (the onset of which was accompanied by the infamous ‘eggy’ burps) and was almost unable to move for 36 hours while my body purged itself.

Here in Malaysia I have watched in astonishment as a fellow camper peed into the same river in which, 20 ft away, others were doing the washing up!  I’ve found pesticide bottles dumped into rivers, sewage pipes from villages often empty directly into rivers, tapir (apparently) like to relieve themselves in the same rivers they drink from and run-off from farms can contain all sorts of nasties.  The situation is even worse during the heavy rains, when surface excrement and other grot is washed off surrounding hills…and into the rivers.

All of this can make jungle trekkers understandably paranoid about cleaning the water they drink

…and yet, I have also drunk water directly from jungle streams (without filtering or purifying the water) without getting ill in the slightest.

So here’s the thing: if you get dehydrated in the tropics a whole host of associated problems will quickly follow and, without any water at all, you will die in a matter of days.  If I was lost in the jungle and was unable to purify the water from streams I would still drink it, no question about that – however, if I was able to purify the water I would absolutely do so, no question about that either.

In this video I look at the basics of making water from streams safe to drink and show some tips and tricks that can be used in the jungle.

If you decide that you want to buy an off-the-shelf filter system instead (and rely only on that), make sure that it purifies as well as filters the water.  For example, the gravity fed Millbank bag (basically a tightly woven, canvas sock) will filter water and remove a lot of the nasties, but it won’t purify it (i.e. you should still boil or chemically treat any water filtered through it).

Also, be aware that if your filter cracks or tears (e.g. a crack in the internal ceramic core of a Katadyn filter) then it won’t work properly.  Filter systems can also get clogged up fast if used with very turbid water (so you may want to prefilter first through a cloth or bamboo-style filter).

Another option is to buy replacement filter elements and then rig up your own DIY (gravity fed) filter bag.  I think Katadyn sell these, but I’m not sure.  With more and more people using water filters in their homes, good (i.e. low micron)  filter elements are becoming easier to source.

For me, I stick to chemical purification or boiling water as opposed to carrying filtration/purification systems but, at the end of the day, it’s a personal choice and some people prefer to take in a commercially available kit instead.

One last thing, don’t rely solely on being able to boil water: you may not be able to get a fire going and, in a tropical rainstorm, your fire will quickly go out….but then again, during a tropical rainstorm, clean drinkable water is simply falling from the sky!