Portable Solutions for Potable Problems

by Karla Allen on 2018-01-08 11:42am

Image credit: wikipedia.org

Americans in Puerto Rico (in other words, all of its citizens) need clean drinking water. Ever since Hurricane Maria spun its destruction across the island in September 2017, the U.S. territory and its 3.5 million inhabitants have suffered power outages, food shortages, and most dangerously, a lack of clean running water. So have the faucets been turned back on in what is essentially America’s 51st state?

In a word, no. The problem in Puerto Rico began long before the hurricane hit the island. While after hurricanes on the U.S. mainland many communities need a few days, maybe even weeks (think Superstorm Sandy and Hurricane Katrina) to restore services to their pre-storm level, Puerto Rico, by all reports, is still struggling. On the mainland, every service of the United States is within driving distance. An 18-wheeler full of pallets of bottled water can be driven to even the most rural area in Louisiana or Texas for distribution to a hard-hit region.

Not so Puerto Rico (although if almost half of Americans polled didn’t know Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, it does leave one wondering if those same folks know Puerto Rico is also an island in the Atlantic...an ocean, by the way...). Puerto Rico’s infrastructure, according to numerous accounts, was fragile before the storm struck mostly due to a lack of financial ability to maintain, improve, and provide basic overall care for systems that were not meeting safety standards already. Hurricane Maria wasn’t a ‘perfect storm’, but it was definitely one element of the ‘perfect storm’ currently raging on the island.

This gives the U.S. territory commonality with developing areas all over the world. Water.org estimates that 844 million people live without access to safe water. So what’s the immediate solution, while a system that has apparently been limping along for years is being rebuilt, or even for a country that is interested in developing a water plan but still needs to get clean drinking water to their citizens right now?

First, let’s look at the minimum: in an emergency situation, for basic survival, how much water is really needed? According to the World Health Organization, short-term survival needs are 7.5-15 liters, per person, per day, for basic drinking and cooking. The numbers rise from there, upwards to 70 liters, per person, per day, which includes personal washing, home cleaning, sanitation and waste disposal, crops, and gardens and recreation. Depending on climate and culture, there may be other priorities, such as water for livestock, or for bathing before religious rituals, or for other washing.

Survivalists who examine end-of-the-world scenarios often suggest just 1 liter per day to survive the first 72 hours after the emergency (nuclear attack-worldwide pandemic-EMP strike-meteor landfall-zombie raid), which keeps preppers hydrated enough to get to their refuge of safety where, in theory, they have their long-term water supply.

Borrowing that mentality, how do disaster-stricken citizens get that 1-7 liters per day for immediate survival? Enter portable products. Backpackers and bug-out preppers have devoted entire websites to lists and brands and reviews, and likely most people are familiar at the very least with the Brita water pitcher from someone’s dining table.

From the disaster preparedness booklet Food and Water in an Emergency provided by FEMA and the American Red Cross, there are several recommended methods for purifying water, and suggest that if a disaster victim is not using bottled water, they employ redundant methods of filtering and treating the water. (Methods such as ultraviolet light are not mentioned here because they require a reliable energy source, such as electricity for operation.) The following are included in portable methods:

  • A pot and a heat source - According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), boiling water for 1-3 minutes is generally adequate to make the water safe for consumption.

  • Solar radiation - A clear plastic bag and an aluminum surface on which to lay it can purify the water if the solar rays can reach the contaminants (ie, the water isn’t cloudy).

  • Purifiers - While it depends on the style, most purifiers operate similarly. Contaminated water is run through a ceramic and/or carbon (as a secondary resource) filter, or actually sucked up through a straw system, which prevents the contaminants from passing through to the degree that the water is cleaned.

  • Chemical disinfection - These usually come in tablets, drops, or powder form that can be dissolved in ‘dirty’ water to kill the water-borne diseases, using chemicals such as chlorine or iodine.

Then there are products that have developed in the past decade that use a combination of reliable techniques in new ways to cleanse the water, and an education plan, for populations that are unaware of the effect of deadly contaminants in their water, such as the Solarball and the Drinkable Book, among others.

Image credit: defense.gov Airman 1st Class Nicholas Dutton

A quick scan of retail pricing for standard portable solutions start at free or very low cost for people with a pot and heat source, or the sun, plastic bags, and aluminum, to $12 and up for water additives, and $20 and up for filter methods.  

These are the solution to the crisis of keeping people alive from the time of an emergency situation to the time of restoration of services. Or during the development of a stable system. Which IS happening in Puerto Rico. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, true to their overall mission, is quietly working away to maintain and repair the systems which already exist in Puerto Rico, ‘powering flood control systems, water purification plants and sewage treatment plants, that were installed long enough ago that they should have been updated well before the storm. Before the rebuilding can begin, the assessing must take place, with portable products a critical part of the survival solution in the meantime. In other words, no one will be watering crops, if no one lives to plant them.

There are a few naysayers out there who complain that, since portable water filtration systems are not designed to be a long-term solution for an area’s water needs, they should therefore be disregarded. Obviously a long-term solution is better. Obviously. Residents of Florida wouldn’t be interested in a long-term water plan that includes their kids sucking water from the Okefenokee Swamp with a LifeStraw on a daily basis (and would likely perform the country’s fastest recall ever on elected officials who made that suggestion).

Image credit: pixabay.com

But dismiss detractors who think that temporary portable devices have no place on the road to permanent potable solutions, because here’s the deal: these devices could work to help a person make it from an emergency situation (like a hurricane that devastated an already weak infrastructure) to a long-term stable situation, alive. Portable units buy time for those without access to a stable potable water supply.

While the mission for permanent infrastructure evolves in Puerto Rico, and in many other areas of the world, address the immediate water needs of all of the citizens affected with portable solutions for survival.


Karla Allen, the author, is a researcher and writer for a variety of trades for At Your Pace Online, an online education provider for water technicians and operators through aypotech.com, as well as other trades, where we provide continuing education units (CEU) for those in the water treatment profession.