January 4, 2008

Boiling Drinking Water at Home in Developing Countries
Lima, Peru

The Boza family boils their tap water before they drink or cook with it. They've always done this, though such a practice became a popular habit for the residents of Lima during the city's widespread cholera outbreaks in the early 1990s.

The family uses some type of electric water pitcher to boil a liter or so of water at a time—commonplace at supermarkets in the city—and place the purified contents into a large pitcher on the kitchen counter. Once cooled, people consume or cook with the water.

I'm a process improvement kind of guy, and like to make quality of life enhancements where I can—especially when I'm directly affected by an inefficiency—and have recently been giving thought on how to best purify tap water for the household.

There are several problems with the method they're currently using:

  • The purified water comes out hot—useless if you want a drink and the pitcher is empty
  • The pitcher is often empty—water isn't being boiled to replace an exhausted supply
  • The water tastes like something else—there is only one big pitcher, and it's often used to make chicha morada or other drinks
  • The water isn't refreshing—the pitcher is kept on the kitchen counter, at room temperature
  • The water is too warm to drink—still cooling from having been recently purified

I'm told the reason the family boils there water is because of the levels of fecal matter, chemical contaminants, and bacteria that are still floating around in the liquid, even after it's been processed by the water-treatment plant.

Lima gets its water from the Rio Rimac, a water source that has turned brown and is full of garbage and animal waste runoff by the time it reaches the capital from the highlands. I'm told household water often still contains unacceptably high amounts of Helicobacter pilori—a bacteria that lives quite happily in acidic environment of the stomach.

Using and consuming contaminated water is absolutely unavoidable. We shower in it, we wash the dishes with it, and we bush our teeth with it. Trying to avoid it entirely is futile, though something can be said for not drinking it by choice in large quantities.

These are decisions any traveler has to make for him or herself: To drink the water or not?

I typically take the stance that I do what the local population is doing. The residents of Bayahibe in the Dominican Republic only drank bottled water, and that's what I did. If most folks are putting their mouth to the tap, I follow suit, so long as the water doesn't smell bad or look funny.

Now, I'm not without incidents of traveler's diarrhea, but I've been blessed with a fantastic resistance to those menacing microbes that lurk in and on most every surface and foodstuff. My problem is that I don't particularly like the taste of water when it's at room temperature—bottled or otherwise—and that detours me from drinking local tap water a lot of the time.

The problem in the Boza home is mostly about culture and habit. I could buy another large pitcher or two, but the habit of not boiling water to replenish the container(s) will remain. I could boil the water myself and put the pitchers in the refrigerator, but when I leave in a few weeks, the problems of old will just manifest again.

I could find a filter that's attached to the sink faucet or kept in the refrigerator, but doubt the family would replace the filters when they became spent, especially if it's something they have to pay for—the cost of boiling water isn't particularly visible, whereas filters are.

Tatiana needs to be drinking lots of water, and too many times have I watched her return to the room complaining that there isn't anything for her to drink. I'm now keeping a 2.5-liter bottle of water in our bedroom, just for her.

I'm not quite sure what to do… if anything. I don't get the impression that the family would think I'm belittling their methods should I propose an alternate, though am unsure what solution would work in the long-term.



January 5th, 2008

So how much is a 5 gallon jug of bottled water?

Most places where people don't drink the tap water have fairly cheap places to get purified water. Just don't get distilled water, it tends to taste bland.

Bob L

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