Water is the elixir of life, we all need it and we all drink it, and quite often we all take it for granted too. But what happens when we are travelling through a country like India where we can’t trust the local water? How do you cope? How do you stay healthy and hydrated without getting ill? Here are some expert tips from a qualified nurse on how to stay healthy when drinking water in India.
India is a vast country that has been a litmus test for backpackers for decades, forcing a dichotomy of opinions that love the diversity, the colour, the vibrant energy and the deep, rich culture and history that seems to permeate through every pore on the one hand, but absolutely hating other aspects of travel through this great country.
One of the overwhelming criticisms from travellers is the quality of the local water, and questions always arise from any potential traveller to the country of exactly how safe it is to drink.
The short answer is no, it is generlly not safe for western travellers to drink local tap water in India.
The simple fact is that even in larger cities where water has been treated, and assuming that you are drinking water that would not otherwise cause any problems, your gut simply will not be used to the normal, everyday bacteria present there which can cause you at the very least stomach upset.
The bigger problem is tgat a vast majority of India’s natural water supply is contaminated with sewage and agricultural runoff, containing high levels of saline, arsenic, flouride, iron and other contaminants that make the groundwater in over a third of the country unfit to drink. That, alongside poor sanitation and treatment facilities is a huge problem in India, with the World Health Organisation stating that over 21% of communicable diseases in India were due to unsafe and untreated drinking water, and that is despite heavy investment in sanitation and infrastructure, and huge projects by Water.org and others.
What Harm Can Local Tap Water Do?
More than most people think, certainly. Apart from the general stomach upsets caused by normal everyday bacteria that your own stomach may not be used to, contaminants in local water can cause Diarrhoea, Dysentery, Hepatitis A, Cholera and more.
By drinking local tap water without a care in the world you are running a gauntlet between getting a simple case of Delhi Belly that will keep you grounded for a day or two as you strive to stay near a toilet or a serious disease such as Cholera that will require medical attention.
What Can You Do To Avoid Getting Ill?
Drink Bottled Water.
Drinking bottled water in India is essential, it is really that simple, and that stands for everything, from your routine re hydration drink throughout the day to simply brushing your teeth. If you need water, make sure it’s bottled, and just as importantly make sure that it is from a large, reputable international company, as smaller local brands may not have as extensive or as thorough a filtration process. The big brands are more trustworthy.
Beware of the rebottling scam.
I initially thought this was a one of scam when I first encountered it, it was only later that I discovered that the practice is so common throughout India that it can be considered normal!
This scam is where the vendor essentially gets back old, used bottles of genuine water and refills them from the tap before recapping them and selling them on again as sealed bottled water. It’s disgusting, it’s dishonest and more importantly it is unhealthy. Don’t be complacent either, some go to great lengths to make the seal look genuine! In general terms you need to look out for:
- A broken or semi broken looking seal on the bottle cap.
- Listen for the subtle, popping click when you take the cap off. This is the plastic grooves of the cap snapping. If you hear it, it is likely a genuine seal.
- If you don’t hear the click or instead hear a slightly squeaking sound, the cap may be glued back on.
Don’t be fooled, and if you do come across a dodgy bottle demand your money back and crush the bottle in front of the vendor so they can’t use it again!
Ask for Reversed Osmosis water.
Many hotels, guesthouses and restaurants throughout India will serve reversed osmosis water instead of plain old water from the tap. This is clean and safe to drink. Not everywhere will do it however so make sure you ask.
Purify your water.
Where you can’t get hold of safe, clean drinking water, it is recommended that you at the very least purify the water you can get hold of. There are essentially three types of purification, boiling, halogens and filtration. It is not really practical to expect to boil your water every single time you want a drink or brush your teeth, and lets face it who wants to drink hot water all the time?
Halogens, more commonly known as water purification tablets come in either chlorine and silver or chlorine dioxide, and they are fantastically simple and relatively cheap ways to purify water. You simply buy the tablets, drop them in water and hey presto. To be perfectly honest though they often aren’t the best tasting option around and can be a bit of a pain to do every single time.
The final way of purifying your water is filtration, and this for me is hands down the best option. There are a whole range of bottles, pens or straws that you can simply dunk in the water and drink through, or drink directly from, with the device removing all the harmful bacteria for you.
Use a water filter bottle.
Water filter bottles are absolutely ideal. Apart from giving you safe, clean drinking water every time you drink from them, you can also refill them as many times as you like which means that you are helping the environment too by saving on dozens of plastic bottles every single month. I’ve used these bottles trekking through jungles, hiking up mountains, exploring hot, sweaty cities and even at the gym!
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