Think before you drink

Intrepid bottle on the Salt Flats of BoliviaFrom high in the Himalayas, to tea stalls in the Andes and at floating markets in Vietnam, you are never far from someone selling you bottled water – offering you convenience and a promise that it’s safe to drink. You may also not be far from a rubbish dump or a river bank that has plenty of evidence of discarded bottles, making the natural environment less than healthy.

Buying one bottle of water doesn’t seem like a big deal, but when multiplied by the millions, we have one dirty big problem…

- 200ml of oil is used to produce a 1 litre plastic bottle. Plus 2 litres of water to make the bottle, therefore for every 1 litre of water sold, 3 litres of water are used.
- Consider carbon emissions – CO2 from production and transportation. How many ‘ships in the night’ must pass each other with bottled water from different ends of the earth!
- What a waste – in countries where recycling systems are prevalent, it’s estimated that still only around a third of bottles are recycled. An Intrepid group of 12 people on a 14 day trip in a hot country, could, at just two bottles of water a day, discard 336 plastic bottles!

So what are your options on holiday? It’s wise to know before you go. And once at Intrepid’s destinations your group leader can let you know about the available alternatives. They may include:

- Bubblers/dispensers – filling from a bubbler, a purifying dispenser or reverse osmosis system (common in India), or obtaining boiled water from a flask in your room or the kitchen – the latter being common in China and Russia.
- Water purification tablets – available from camping stores or pharmacies. Some of the newer brands of water purification tablets have very minimal taste, especially if put in the bottle and left with the cap off to ‘vent’ overnight. Micropur brand is a good example.
- Iodine – tablets or 2% tincture of iodine solution available from pharmacies. Used at 4 drops per litre of water and left for at least 20 minutes, longer in very cold weather. Iodine may leave a slightly unpleasant taste. This can be countered by adding ascorbic acid (vitamin C) to the treated water, but this should only be added after having waited the recommended amount of time for treatment because it neutralizes the effectiveness of the iodine.
- Portable water filters and purification systems – there is a wide range to choose from and your choice will depend on your intended usage, destination and length of time away. Considerations include whether you’re mostly treating town water, heading into the wilderness and collecting water from natural sources, the level of silt and the likely contamination. As the technology is advancing so rapidly in this area, we advise you get the latest recommendations from a reputable outdoor gear supplier.
- Tap water! Ask your leader. Don’t assume the water is bad, or good – find out!

With a bit of forethought, you can drink plenty and stay healthy during your travels. Plus you can help protect our precious resources and the natural environment of your host’s community.

This article was originally posted in March 2010, but since then the water bottle situation has become even more serious. So we want to remind you that there are now easy alternatives for travellers that will avoid us all adding to the global trash problem.

* photo by Amanda Stuart – Intrepid Photography Competition

About the author

Sue Elliot - Like many of us, Sue contracted a serious travel bug at an early age. She's visited over 90 countries in search of a cure, but her wanderlust just seems to get worse. Thankfully at Intrepid Travel she's amongst people who understand the affliction and since 1998 Sue has enjoyed being our blog and newsletter editor. Here you'll read about Sue's travel experiences, find helpful travel advice and she loves sharing great tales from Intrepid travellers.

5 comments

I have used a steri-pen on two trips to India. It’s small and easy to use and leaves no bad taste. It’s a really good investment in being a responsible traveller. That and a refillable nalgene-type container will serve you and others well. You can even use it in stream water if it’s not too cloudy!

I’ve used a Sweet Water filter (pump and filter) for many years, all around the world, including Canadian wilderness. It takes maybe 5 minutes to filter a litre of water. No big deal! In the wilderness I use a pre-filter to filter the silt. That is not necessary if using tap water.

In December last year I travelled through Cambodia and Laos (including a jungle trek). I used Aquaprove water purification drops, which worked fantastically. Easy to carry. Water doesn’t taste like chlorine or iodine after purifying. You just put 4 drops in 1L of water and wait 5 mins before drinking. I will be using this on all my future travels.

I agree that it might be difficult to purify water sometimes on the road. However, there certainly are alternatives for those who wish to be responsible travellers other than buying bottles to throw away. For example, in China everyone has tea flasks that are sturdy and refillable and boiled, clean drinking water is always available at all hotels, bus & train stations and on the trains. In India many hotels have water dispensers that you can fill up your bottle at the beginning of each day. In Russia you can always boil the water with the kettle in your room to make it drinkable. So Anne, there are more ways than what you might think and recycling is not always the only answer as this can use more energy and water than making a plastic bottle in the first place!

In an ideal world this would be wonderful BUT there is no way travellers have the time nor the will to organise purifying their own water whilst on the road. Drinking tainted water could ruin the trip for yourself & impact on your fellow travellers. Recycling for a monetary insentive would alleviate a lot of the pollution problems.
Forget the rubbish about carbon credits! The whole thing is a sham so please dont buy into it. France has just announced they will not be implementing a carbon tax. Remember the fable about the Emperor and his (no) clothes. At last governments are waking up to the fact that Al Gore has conned the world for his own gain.

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