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Disaster Preparedness: Safe Water 101

More than 80% of the drinking water for San Diego travels 400-1000 miles to reach our faucets. In the event of an emergency it’s likely that somewhere along the way this water supply chain will break, leaving all 3.177 million of us to fend for ourselves in our natural desert climate.

The long journey water travels to reach Southern California.

The long journey water travels to reach Southern California.

The “Rule of 3s” says that humans can live about 3 weeks without food, but less than 3 days without water. In the case of an emergency, water is necessary for drinking, but also food preparation and hygiene.  Imagine you turn on the faucet, and no water comes out. How can you protect your safety and be prepared in this case? The following guidelines on safe water sources and storage during emergencies are compiled from literature published by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). And while water is the most vital of all emergency supplies, information regarding other important supplies – food, lights, radio, etc. – can be found in detail by clicking on the sources listed at the bottom of the page.

A large earthquake can easily destroy infrastructure bringing water to Southern California.

A large earthquake can easily destroy infrastructure bringing water to Southern California.

1)      Store your own emergency water supply. You should store at least a three-day water supply for each person and pet in the household. Each person/pet needs 1 gallon per day. So in a family of four, it is recommended that you store 12+ gallons of drinking water in case of emergencies. In fact, some sources suggest you store a 2-week water supply. You can further improve the taste of stored or recently disinfected water by aerating it with oxygen. This is done by passing the water back and forth between two clean pots or containers.

2)      Be prepared to create clean water. For some it’s simply not feasible to store that much water. Having the ability to make clean drinking water can provide a safety net in case your supply begins to run low, potentially saving lives.  If you are uncertain of a water sources’ quality, do not use it – even for washing dishes- without first disinfecting it. Disinfection protects you from diseases such as dysentery, typhoid, and hepatitis as well as germs, bacteria, and viruses. There are many ways to treat water of uncertain quality, and often the best solution is a combination of methods.

  • Easiest & Safest: Purchase an emergency water filter. These products, although pricey, will comprehensively disinfect and filter drinking water with ease. Companies such as Katadyn, Camelback, and Lifestraw sell these “purifying” filters that are designed to eliminate viruses, bacteria, and protozoa from any water source. Regardless of the brand of filter you chose it must be designed to filter contaminated water sources.
  • Cheapest: Boiling. If you have a large pot and a fire, you have all the tools you need to treat water of compromised quality. Bring the water to a rolling boil for 5 minutes and let it cool before drinking. Although this method is relatively simple, it unfortunately can be slow and dangerous. Even a small burn can become easily infected if not treated properly.
  • Simplest but limited: Chlorination. Household bleach will kill microorganisms, but also can be harmful if ingested in too high of quantities. That being said, if done properly, it’s basically the same technique municipal water districts use to safeguard the regular water supply. The plain bleach solution should be 5-6% sodium hypochlorite with no added preservatives or additional ingredients. Stir in the proper amount of bleach and let stand for 30 minutes. If after the first treatment the water doesn’t smell like bleach, then it means there is more to disinfect. Repeat the same dosage and let stand for 15 additional minutes. If following the second treatment the water still doesn’t smell like bleach, this indicates the water is too dirty to use. Use the following amounts of bleach per quantity of water:

                1 quart water = 4 drops bleach                                                                                                           1 gallon water = 16 drops bleach                                                                                                       5 gallons water = 1 tsp bleach                                                                                                             …etc.

3)      Know hidden water supplies in your home. Ice cube trays, hot water heaters, and pipes all contain drinkable water inside your home. However if there are broken water pipes or sewage lines in the area these sources may be compromised. If you here reports of such problems, shut off all incoming water to your home.

  • To use water in your pipes locate the highest faucet in the home and turn it fully on. This will allow air into your plumbing so that you can obtain water from the lowest faucet in the home.
  • To use water in your hot-water heater make sure the gas/electricity is off and open the drain at the bottom of the tank. You can initiate the water flow by turning off the water intake valve and turning on a hot-water faucet.

4)      Know water sources outside your home. Rainwater, streams, rivers, and ponds are all emergency sources of outdoor water. However, these sources need to be treated by one of the methods listed above in section #3 to kill possible germs, bacteria, and viruses. Try to avoid water with floating material, an odor, or dark color. Never drink salt water – this will cause further dehydration.

While it is important to wisely use a limited supply of water, you should never withhold from drinking while you are thirsty in order to ration supplies. Instead drink what you need to stay healthy today, enabling yourself to look for more tomorrow.



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