Hesperian Health Guides
Water and Health
New Where There Is No Doctor > Chapter 32: Water and Sanitation: Keys to Staying Healthy > Water and Health
In this chapter:
Water is essential for life. We need it, as do the animals and plants that we depend on for our survival. In communities that lack adequate water, many health problems arise.
- Without water, people cannot grow enough food to eat, leading to malnutrition and the many health problems that go along with it.
- Infections of the eyes and skin arise when people cannot use water to bathe. Other illness also spreads more quickly when people cannot stay clean.
- Those who collect the water (usually women and children) spend much of their time in the exhausting work of traveling and carrying water. This leaves little time for school, other work at home, or community life.
Water that is safe to drink
In addition to enough water, people also need water that is safe to drink, free of dangerous germs and harmful chemicals. Contaminated water causes:
- hepatitis A, typhoid fever, and other
- diarrhea, which leads to dehydration and
can cause death especially for children.
- infections such as schistosomiasis that can lead to anemia
Different methods for making water safe are described below. It is also important for your community to prevent water from being polluted or made scarce in the first place.
In places with industrial activity such as mining or factories, water may be overused and polluted. Poisonous chemicals get in water from agriculture, mining, industry, and dumping trash. This causes skin rashes, cancers, and other serious health problems. Water that has been contaminated with chemicals is never safe to drink. Chemical pollution of our water can be solved only when a community puts pressure on governments and enforces rules on industry. For more on protecting water sources, see chapter 6 in A Community Guide to Environmental Health.
With enough safe water, children grow healthier
and have less diarrhea disease.
Water should be taken from the cleanest possible place. When collecting water from rivers,
collect upriver from:
Rainwater is easy to collect off roofs and into containers placed next to the house. Roofs made of tin or corrugated metal are best to catch water. The water needs to be treated (see below) to make it safe to drink because there may be germs on the roof from dirt, or feces from birds or other animals. Roofs made with lead, asbestos, or tar have toxic chemicals in them that make water collected on them unsafe to drink. Make sure your container is clean and was never used to store chemicals, such as oil or pesticides.
Making water safe to drink
Making water safe to drink is one of the best ways to prevent diarrhea and disease. Water from any source will need to be treated if there are germs in it. Just because clear water flows from pipes, tanks, or wells does not mean it is not contaminated or does not need treatment.
When deciding which water treatment method to use, think about how much water you need, what it is contaminated with, and what resources are available. The chart below can help you decide which method to use if you know a particular problem is common in your area. The method you use may change depending on the season or where you are. For example, you may use one method at home and another when you are working in the fields.
|Problem||Filter methods||Disinfection methods|
|Cloth Filter||Charcoal Filter||Boiling||Chlorine||Sunlight||Lemon or Lime juice|
|Viruses (such as hepatitis A and typhoid)|
|Bacteria (such as shigella and e. coli)|
This chart shows which germs and parasites the different methods kill.
The water drop means that method is effective at killing that germ.
If there is more than one cause of water-borne disease where you live (which is often the case), the best solution may be to combine two methods: filter and disinfection.
Bottling and selling the right to water
When people do not trust that water from their taps is clean, those who have the money buy bottled or bagged water. If there are germs in tap water, drinking safe bottled water is a way to avoid illness for those who can afford it. But just because water is sold in a bottle does not mean it is safe. In many cases, bottled water is just tap water in a bottle, but sold at a much higher price. Bottling water also causes many health and environmental problems:
When you consider all the problems, bottled water costs much more than providing safe water for everyone.
There are many ways to filter water to make it safer. Cloth and charcoal filters are explained below. Other kinds of filters, such as slow sand and ceramic filters, are explained in A Community Guide to Environmental Health, chapter 6.
If your water is not clear, first let the water settle in a container for a few hours to allow dirt, solids, and parasites to fall to the bottom of the container. Pour the clear water through the filter. Try not to disturb the dirt that settled to the bottom of the container. Then clean the container.
In Bangladesh and India, people use a filter made of finely woven cloth to remove cholera germs from drinking water. The cholera germ often attaches to a tiny animal that lives in water, and filtering out these animals also filters out most cholera germs. You can make a cloth filter out of handkerchiefs, linen, or other fabric such as the cloth used to make saris. Old cloth works better because worn fibers make the spaces in the weave smaller and better for filtering.
- Let water settle in a container so that solids sink to the bottom.
- Fold the cloth 4 times and stretch or tie it over the mouth of another container or jar.
- Pour water slowly from the first container through the cloth into the second container or jar. Always use the same side of the cloth, or germs may get into the water.
- After using the cloth, wash it and leave it in the sun to dry. This kills any germs that may be left in the cloth. In the rainy season, disinfect the cloth with bleach.
To make a charcoal filter, you will need 2 clean metal or plastic buckets, a hammer, 1 or 2 large nails, a bucketful of coarse sand, and ¼ bucket of wood charcoal.
- Make holes in the bottom of one of the buckets. Wash the bucket. This will be the filter bucket.
- Clean the sand by rinsing it in water and draining until the water that drains is clear.
- Put a layer of washed sand 5 cm deep into the filter bucket and pour water over it. Water should run out through the holes. If no water runs out, make the holes bigger. If sand runs out, the holes are too large. If this happens, remove the sand, place a thin cloth over the holes, and replace the sand.
- Crush charcoal into small pieces. Activated charcoal works best, but ordinary wood charcoal will also work. Never use charcoal briquettes, they are poison!
- Place a layer of crushed charcoal about 8 cm deep on top of the sand. Then fill the bucket with more washed sand until the sand is 10 cm below the top of the bucket.
- Place 2 sticks on top of the second bucket and set the filter bucket on these sticks. Pour clean water through the filter bucket. When the water comes out clear into the collecting bucket, the filter is ready for use.
Filter bucketOpen 10 cmSand8 cm charcoal5 cm sandSticks to hold bucketClean collecting bucket
- Allow water to settle before pouring it through the filter.
Because the germs that are filtered out will grow on the charcoal, it is important to remove and clean the charcoal every few weeks if the filter is used daily, or any time the filter has been unused for a few days. To clean the charcoal, take it out of the filter and run water over it until it drains quickly. Let it dry, in bright sun if possible. Then put the charcoal back in the filter.
|Boiling water for 1 minute kills germs and makes water safe for drinking.|
Bring water to a rapid boil. Continue boiling
for 1 full minute before taking the pot off the fire to cool. In high mountain areas, water must boil
for 3 minutes.
Boiling may change the taste of water, especially if boiled over a wood fire. If the taste bothers you, pour the cooled water in a bottle and shake it. Shaking adds air to the water and improves the taste.
Boiling water after food is prepared, but before the fire dies, is one way to use less firewood.
The amount of chlorine needed to disinfect water depends on how contaminated the water is. The more germs there are in the water, the more chlorine is needed to kill them. When the correct amount is used, the water will smell and taste just slightly of chlorine. This tells you it is safe to drink. If it has too much, the smell and taste will be strong and unpleasant.
Chlorine comes in different concentrations. The amounts listed below show how to disinfect water using household bleach with 5% chlorine (sodium hypochlorite). Read the label to see what percent of chlorine is in your bleach. If the bleach is 3% chlorine, you will need to use more. If your bleach label includes instructions for disinfecting water, follow those instructions. Do not use bleach that has soap or perfume added to it.
If the water is cloudy or has a lot of solid matter in it, filter the water before adding chlorine.
|Water||Add Bleach (5%)|
|For 1 liter or 1 quart||2 drops|
|For 1 gallon or 4 liters||8 drops|
|For 5 gallons or 20 liters||½ teaspoon|
|For a 200 liter barrel||5 teaspoons|
After adding the right amount of chlorine, stir well and wait at least 30 minutes before drinking. If the water does not smell or taste just slightly of chlorine after adding the amount listed, add the same amount again. Stir and wait before drinking.
Sunlight (solar disinfection) works best in countries close to the equator, because the sun is strongest there. The farther north or south you are, the more time is needed for sunlight to work.
Filtering the water first to make it clearer will also make it disinfect more quickly. Clean a plastic or glass bottle, or a plastic bag. Clear plastic soda bottles are the best to use. Fill the bottle half full, then shake it for 20 seconds. This adds air bubbles which help disinfect the water faster. Then fill the bottle to the top. Place the bottle where there is no shade and where people and animals will not disturb it, such as the roof of a house. Leave the bottle for at least 6 hours in full sun, or for 2 days if the weather is cloudy.
Lemon or lime juice
Add the juice of a lemon or lime to 1 liter of drinking water and let it sit
for 30 minutes. The acid from the juice will kill most cholera and some other germs as well. This method is not very good because plenty of germs may remain in the water, but it is better than no treatment, especially in areas where there is cholera.
Store water safely
After water has been filtered or disinfected it must be stored safely. Otherwise it can easily become contaminated again. Water stored in tanks with cracked walls may not be safe. Likewise containers with loose, poorly made, or missing covers, do not prevent water from becoming contaminated by germs.
Covered tanks and cisterns are safer for storing water than open tanks because mosquitoes and snails cannot live in closed containers. Locate water storage as close as possible to where the water will be used.
Stored water can also become unsafe when it is touched by dirty cups, dirty hands, when clean water is poured into a dirty container, or when dirt or dust gets in the water.
To prevent water from becoming contaminated during storage:
- pour water out without touching the mouth of the container, or use a clean, long-handled dipper to take water out of the container. Do not let the dipper touch anything else, or it will contaminate the clean water when it is used again.
- empty and clean out the container with hot water every 2 or 3 weeks.
- keep containers covered.
- keep drinking cups clean.
- never store water in containers that have been used for pesticides or toxic chemicals.
- do not treat more water than you need for short-term use, if possible. For drinking and preparing food, that is usually about 5 liters for each person each day.
|Narrow mouthed containers keep more germs out, so are safest for storing water.|
Water for everyone
Good health depends on having enough good water. This means our right to health depends on our right to water. While we can work to protect water sources, and treat water to make it safe, our health is still threatened if mining, run-off from fertilizers and pesticides, or factories pollute our water.
Governments and communities must work together to protect, improve, and extend water systems so they provide people with enough safe water. Private companies say if we let them take control of our water, they can provide better service than governments and still make a profit. This is called water privatization. But usually what happens is that the price of water goes up, denying people access to their own water. This leads to serious health problems when people use less water than they need or when they collect water wherever they can for free, even if the water is contaminated with germs or toxic chemicals.
To keep people and the environment healthy, we need public water systems that provide water that is safe to drink for everyone. Community controlled water systems can be managed so people’s health, not making money, is the top priority.