We have all heard the advice a hundred times: store plenty of water in the event of an emergency. But why is it so important to have safe, drinkable water in the first place? How much is “plenty”? How should we store it? And if we don’t have space to store a lot of water, what are the alternatives?
We have grown so accustomed to being able to turn on the tap and get clean, pure, safe drinking water that most of us don’t know what dangers can lurk in dirty water. Bacteria, viruses, parasites, toxic chemicals, and radioactive materials can all find their way into water during its journey from raindrop to river to ocean. Surface waters are famous for massive natural contamination, particularly in association with agricultural practices and improper treatment of sewage. Public water mains can develop cracks that allow contaminants into the water supply. Well water can also become contaminated.
The most common microbial contaminants of drinking water are coliform bacteria, Giardia lamblia (a protozoan parasite), Cryptosporidium (another protozoan parasite), Hepatitis A virus, and various worms (actually their eggs). These are all fecal contaminants, which should tell you something about why proper sewage treatment is so important, as is proper disposal of treated effluent. All of these can cause serious disease and even death, especially in the very young, the very old, and those with immune system compromise. Toxic chemicals and even radioactive materials can wind up in water supplies due to accidental discharge into the environment or, much less commonly, due to deliberate human actions.
Microbes are easily killed by chlorination and/or filtration. Toxic chemicals may or may not be removed by filtration, depending on the filter system’s design. You should check with the manufacturer for specific details. Radioactive materials are virtually impossible to remove from water using commonly available means due to tiny particle size – filters that you and I can purchase simply can’t do it.
Current recommendations from emergency preparedness experts are to store a minimum of one gallon of water per person per day of anticipated need. If we wish to prepare for a brief loss of safe running water, such as three days or so, this is not a difficult goal for most people to achieve. You can purchase either the appropriate amount of bottled water or a plastic food-grade water barrel to fill with tap water to which you add 6 drops of unscented household bleach per gallon. These water stores will need to be rotated every six months because the bleach dissipates and the containers (especially gallon jugs from the market) will begin to leak.
I don’t have the space in my small apartment to store gallons of water, so I only store a small amount of it. I also have a Katadyn Pro Hiker portable water filter for treating water to make it potable. The big flaw in my plan is this: if the City of Los Angeles somehow loses the ability to deliver tap water, I have a problem. Given that this only happened to neighborhoods in the hills after the Northridge quake (due to system pressure being too low), I will take my chances that water will continue to flow in the event of most conceivable emergencies, and purity will be the biggest problem. I do, however, know how to get to the city’s secret reservoirs in the hills to do what this blog post suggests.
In the event of a long-term issue with water safety rather than supply, you’d want to invest in a countertop water filter like the Berkey or the ProPur, as I have previously mentioned on this blog. These filters are both great for everyday use, by the way, since they are heavy duty and designed for long term functioning. I’d like to get one or the other eventually to replace my little plastic carbon-filter water pitcher that lives in my refrigerator – it’s about 15 years old.
In the event of a problem with either type of water filtration system, you should have a backup plan for disinfection of your tap water when it is unsafe to drink, as happens almost daily in some cities. You can do this either with bleach as described above, or by boiling. All you need to do is bring the water to a full boil and then turn off the heat – you don’t need to time the boiling period. So, your emergency preparations should include a heat source and/or a bleach supply and a means of accurately measuring it such as an eye dropper.
Now that you know why to store water and how to do it, you are better equipped to make appropriate decisions about your personal water supply. Knowledge is power!