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Challenges of Using Natural Water Sources: How to Survive with Water in the Wild


The Big Sur Coast in California.
The Big Sur Coast in California. ©Joseph Poltz/Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Survival specialists talk about the rule of threes: People can survive three minutes without oxygen, three days without water, and three weeks without food.


Oxygen is generally plentiful and most missing people will hopefully be rescued before 21 days, which allows them to focus on finding water—something human beings are remarkably resourceful at doing. Just ask Angela Hernandez and Harry Burleigh.


In July 2018, the 23-year-old woman’s Jeep swerved off California’s Highway 1 and plummeted 200 feet to land on the Big Sur shore. Incredibly, she survived seven long days, using only a small hose to catch water dripping from moss on the rocks, before being rescued.


As she lay sheltered below the cliff face looking out at the Pacific Ocean, she had time to consider the irony of the Earth being known as “The Blue Planet” for the amount of water it holds—water that she was unable to drink.


While it’s true this aquamarine world has seven-tenths of its surface covered by water, only 3% of that is fresh, and only a tiny amount of that fresh water, 0.06%, is easy to access.


New research is showing that it’s not only the waters of the oceans and seas that are not safe to drink. The purity of fresh water is also being degraded.


Man-Made Impurities in Water


A leading expert in water quality improvement, Dr. Satinder Ahuja, president of Ahuja Consulting, warns that human activity has reduced the amount of non-polluted water, making it more difficult to simply drink the water in its natural state.


“Our civilization has managed to pollute our surface water, and even groundwater; this necessitates purification of water for drinking,” he writes in his Handbook of Water Purity and Quality (Second Edition), 2021.


Even rainwater isn’t pure. “Rain is usually contaminated with various pollutants that we now put into the atmosphere,” Dr. Ahuja writes.


According to Dr. Ahuja, over 700 different chemicals have been found in United States tap drinking water. The Environmental Protection Agency classifies 129 of these chemicals as being particularly dangerous and has set standards for approximately 90 contaminants in drinking water, including inorganic arsenic.

Moreover, sanitized tap water is still not pristine. It may be “reasonably expected to contain at least small amounts of some contaminants” although not enough to pose a health risk, Dr. Ahuja writes.  


However, according to Dr. Ahuja, over 700 different chemicals have been found in United States tap drinking water. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) classifies 129 of these chemicals as being particularly dangerous and has set standards for approximately 90 contaminants in drinking water. This includes inorganic arsenic, a known human carcinogen causally associated with cancers of the skin, bladder, and lungs.


Nature Also Contributes Impurities


In addition to man-made water pollution, nature also plays a large part in the quality of water. The vegetation it flows through, the rocks it runs over, the dust and salt that blows into it, the storms which add to it, and the droughts that evaporate it all impact water quality and give it a certain chemical signature.


Water reacts to the organic materials it flows through, such as leaves and roots, soil bacteria, and algae, and, when the balance in this material shifts, the ecosystem and water quality changes. Aquatic plants produce oxygen and consume carbon dioxide, nitrogen, and phosphorous through photosynthesis, while decaying plant materials almost do the opposite, consuming oxygen and producing carbon dioxide, changing the physical and chemical composition of the water.


Even spring water should be treated prior to consumption.
Even spring water should be treated prior to consumption. ©Lakkahillo/Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Natural water can contain dissolved salts and minerals, which are necessary components of good quality water and help maintain healthy organisms that rely on this ecosystem. There is a great variation in the number of dissolved materials that water carries—from 200,000 parts per million (ppm) in saline aquifers to as little as 50 ppm of total dissolved solids in spring water. Under EPA recommendations, drinking water should contain up to 500 ppm of total dissolved solids. Natural water can also contain a variety of contaminants arising from erosion, soil leaching, and weathering processes.


There is a great variation in the number of dissolved materials that water carries—from 200,000 parts per million (ppm) in saline aquifers to as little as 50 ppm of total dissolved solids in spring water.

Another contamination problem is caused by fluoride. Many rocks and minerals in the Earth's crust contain this substance; it can be leached out by natural weathering and rainwater. In some regions, natural geology or soils contain concentrations of phosphorus and low concentrations of arsenic that endanger human and ecosystem health.


Pathogens in the water, including bacteria, viruses, and parasites, remain a life-threatening problem. Should any of these be ingested, there is a risk of succumbing to a fatal disease, such as cholera, typhoid, or schistosomiasis, not to mention dysentery and other diarrheal diseases.


“Each year there are about 250 million cases of water-related diseases,” with roughly 5 million to 10 million deaths, Dr. Ahuja writes.


The specific number of people affected by waterborne diseases varies from year to year due to such factors as prevalence of environmental pathogens, public health infrastructure, and sanitation facilities. The World Health Organization (WHO) regularly provides estimates and updates on the global impact of various waterborne diseases, such as in their 2019 report.


Cleaning Public Water


With so many possible causes for making water undrinkable, public water treatment plants need to process water thoroughly through many stages to make it safe for the public.


Most of the globe has sanitation services; however, in 2022, 2 billion people still lacked access to “safely managed” domestic drinking water, or water that is “clean, uncontaminated, and accessible at home,” according to the World Health Organization and UNICEF. [See Earth & I data brief of October 2022.]


The five-stage water treatment process begins with coagulation, where chemicals with a positive charge are added to the water to neutralize the negative charge of dirt and other dissolved particles.


This is followed by flocculation, where the water is mixed to form larger particles, and sedimentation, which separates the larger particles out of the water. The next step is filtration, where the clear water passes through different sized filters, and then the final step, disinfection. The treatment differs depending on the quality of the source water.


Survival Techniques in the Wild


If one has traveled off-grid—either accidentally or deliberately—without water, the best solution is to find a natural source of drinking water, according to The Survival University, based in Cripple Creek, Colorado [see map]. Look for lusher green vegetation, insects, or animal tracks, or listen for the sound of water to help locate this crucial resource.


A part of Calf Creek in Oregon.
A part of Calf Creek in Oregon. ©imgur/globalcannibal

It is best to search on lower ground like Harry Burleigh. The veteran outdoorsman, minus his usual supplies, went on an impromptu fishing trip in the Southern Oregon wilderness in 2021. Lost and injured, and stricken with malnutrition, hypothermia, and dehydration, he survived 17 days by drinking creek water.


If clear water can’t be found but there’s mud, this means groundwater should be available. Dig a hole about a foot deep and in diameter, and wait for it to fill with water. This might not look the most appetizing, but the water will be drinkable in an emergency, especially if it can be strained through some cloth. The Survival University cautions: “It's crucial to remember that any time you drink found water without purifying it, you're taking a risk.”


“It's crucial to remember that any time you drink found water without purifying it, you're taking a risk.”

Use of a survival water filter.
Use of a survival water filter. ©iStock/Wirestock

Additional bushcraft skills have been adapted from people in Australia to be used in all sorts of environments.


Rainwater is a lifesaving source and can be collected ideally in some sort of container and also a waterproof sheeting or jacket—even a cloth can collect enough moisture to slake a dehydrated person’s thirst. If the morning has heavy dew, this form of water can also be collected and may provide enough for a drink. Many types of vegetation can give water too. Depending on the location; fruits, coconuts, cacti, vines, palm trees, and bamboo can all be utilized for hydration.


If lost near a visible source of water, then it is possible to make drinking water safer by boiling it with some sort of container and a way of making a fire—one should first try to filter out the larger particles in the water by passing it through a cloth. Given sufficient time, the UV radiation and heat from sunlight can kill bacteria, protozoa, and viruses in water stored in the right type of container (such as clear or blue PET bottles or clear glass bottles). Therefore, keeping the water in the sun can reduce the number of pathogens in the water if it is impossible to start a fire. Using one or two purification tablets, such as sodium hypochlorite, in the water can also help make the water drinkable, as will using a portable water purifier or filter.

 

*Gordon Cairns is a freelance journalist and teacher of English and Forest Schools based in Scotland.

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