Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Is The Water Safe To Drink?

One of the most frequently asked questions that I am asked about travel is, 'Is It Safe To Drink The Water In . . . ' followed by the name of the country, be it Borneo, Portugal, Chile, China, Haiti, Ethiopia, Thailand etc. And most often, what the asker would like to know is 'Will drinking the local water make me sick?'

And most often, I refer them to a page on my main site ( travel medications ) about why and how to get bottled water when you travel. The focus is on safe drinking water, or 'potable' water. And in many parts of the world, it is in short supply.

Yet an article in the current National Geographic magazine about the acute water shortage in Australia brought home the fact that not only is potable water a concern worldwide, but also that we all should be concerned about the world's water supply over all.

This brought to mind my post in June 2006, in which I blogged about tubs versus showers in hotels, and how I much preferred a nice soak at the end of a long travel day. Now, nearly three years later, it hit me: In a world where the water supply is increasing capricious, long soaks in a bath tub may become a thing of the past. And how totally selfish and shortsighted I was being, and how much I had missed seeing the big picture. It's not a 'lack of amenities' issue -- it's a water issue. DOH!

More and more, hotels are choosing to leave out the tub when renovating rooms, save for a few tubs appreciated by those traveling with children, or for those travelers who cannot stand in a shower. Instead, hotels are opting to install mainly shower stalls: Showers use less water than tubs and that saves money on their water bills; and forgoing the tub saves money on fixtures. While this may be a little self-serving, or just good business practice on the part of the hotels, it also helps to save our water supply.

And this global water shortage didn't happen over night. On one of my earliest trips to Australia (2000), I spent a few days on my friends' farm on the Great Dividing Range, near Crookwell, NSW. And one of the first lessons they taught me was how to shower and flush using the least amount of precious water.

So when I saw a picture in the current National Geographic of a family of three, all three of them in one shower stall, their feet in plastic buckets to catch the grey-water runoff, I thought of my friends. When I read the article about how lack of water is forcing Australian farmers off the farm -- farms they cannot sell without a water supply -- it mirrored my friend's own For Sale farm. And when it's personal, the water crisis takes on new meaning.

That Australia permitted farming in drought-prone areas, and allowed water-intensive rice crops, and diverted large rivers to serve same, etc. is a whole other issue.

That rivers are flooding parts of the US and Canada, and such floods will be a threat for some weeks to come, and that cyclones bring floods to Queensland are part and parcel of overall climate change: Water where it's not needed, and no water where it is. And sometimes, where it IS, it's polluted. And that is our own fault.

We cannot reverse this trend overnight, but we should be starting now to adapt and prepare our lives for a world with a short supply of water.

If you live in a place that has abundant potable water right out of the tap, guard it carefully. Don't think of conserving water as a hardship: Be grateful that you have such a precious commodity at your disposal and treat it as such.

When you travel, be aware that in many countries, running water is a very expensive and exclusive luxury. In places such as the Algarve in Portugal and Mexico, when you encounter low flush, two-button toilets, with a basket for waste paper, use them. If you travel to places like Haiti or Ethiopia, don't expect a daily shower. Save that luxury for when you return home.

And so, the question 'Is the water safe to drink?' is really 'Is there any water to drink?' Already, in many parts of the world, the answer is no.