Ways to wean travellers off the water bottle

High on the slopes of India’s Kangra Valley, Dharamsala is a spiritual, new-agey kind of place that attracts tourists as much for its mountain scenery as its laid-back Tibetan vibe. So when I crested a hill just outside of town nine years ago, what I found shocked me out of my meditative state and seared itself into my conscience. Thousands upon thousands of empty plastic water bottles spilled down the slope. This was the town’s solution to a largely tourism-generated problem.

Don’t drink the water—it’s a mantra we live by when visiting regions with unsafe water systems. But drinking bottled water instead isn’t a perfect solution. Recycling doesn’t exist in many of these countries, and those empties are a mark you leave on the local environment.

Of course, everyone wants to avoid water-borne illnesses, which range from diarrhea to hepatitis A to typhoid fever. Buying bottled water is often easy. But in addition to environmental concerns, it can be a chore to find bottled water in remote locales, and what’s for sale may not be reliable. (It’s not unheard-of for unscrupulous vendors to sell “bottled water” that is actually tap water.)

There are alternatives. According to the World Health Organization publication International Travel and Health, on-line at www.who.int/ith/en/, “Bringing water to a rolling boil is the most effective way to kill all disease-causing pathogens.” But that’s not really a practical solution for most people on the move. Talk to a travel-medicine doctor, such as those at the Vancouver Coastal Health Travel Clinic (www.travelclinic.vancouver.bc.ca/), to determine which method—from purifiers to iodine tablets—will be most suitable for your circumstances.

Travel clinics, camping stores, and travel stores stock a variety of options. Derek Anderson of Wanderlust (1929 West 4th Avenue) recommends the Atlantis Water Purifier ($49.95; also available through the VCH Travel Clinic). The device weighs just three-and-a-half ounces and can purify up to 3,700 litres of water. It fits neatly into a one-litre water bottle while it’s working, and folds into its own plastic cup for storage. “You can throw it in your backpack and drop-kick it, and it’s still going to work for you,” Anderson says. (I’ve backpacked for long periods of time with a similar cup-style purifier and can attest to the fact that it’s easy to use.)

The manufacturer says that Atlantis works by passing water through iodine resin, which kills water-borne bacteria, viruses, and protozoa, as well as Giardia, a parasite that causes diarrhea. Anderson explains that water filters (such as the Pristine Water Bottle and Filter, $26.95 at Wanderlust) don’t kill viruses—they just physically filter out impurities. That may be suitable for the local backwoods, but not for water in developing countries.

Another option at Wanderlust is the Pristine Water Purification System ($19.95), which doesn’t use iodine. You combine droplets from two bottles to create chlorine dioxide. Once added to water, it kills viruses, bacteria, Giardia, and more. “There’s a bit of a hassle factor,” Anderson says. This system purifies up to 120 litres of water.

Mountain Equipment Co-op (130 West Broadway) carries a wide selection of water purifiers, including a product called the SteriPEN Classic ($88). This handheld, battery-operated device purifies with ultraviolet light; immersed in a glass of water, it takes about 60 seconds to kill bacteria, viruses, and protozoa, according to the company’s Web site (www.steripen.com/). Depending on the type of battery you use, it lasts for about 200 glasses.

Of course, even the purest bottled water is still a risk when served with iffy ice. No matter how hot the weather, consider skipping the cold stuff at restaurants. Another image seared into my memory: workers in Bangkok transferring blocks of ice to a storeroom by sliding them off the ramp of a delivery truck and across the alley.

There’s a good excuse to make your cold one a beer instead.