The New Survivalist
Disaster Preparedness and Self-Reliance

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Chapter 4: Water

General Facts About Water

Astronomers often refer to the Earth as the "Blue Planet," so abundant is the water that covers 70% of the planet's surface. Ninety-seven percent of the earth's water is in the oceans, but that water is not readily available for human use because of its high salt content. Of the 3% that consists of fresh water, two thirds is locked in glacial and polar ice. That leaves only 1% of the earth's water available for human use.

Image courtesy of the Image Science & Analysis Laboratory, NASA Johnson Space Center

Scientists believe that life began in the oceans. If that is true, then we apparently took part of the oceans with us when we left our watery birthplace, for fully 70% of the human body is made up of water. A newborn's body consists of 77% water while an adult's consists of approximately 70%. The percentage gradually decreases throughout life with the elderly's body consisting of only 50% water.

Want to stay young? Drink plenty of pure water!

Every cell in the human body contains water, which is necessary for virtually every chemical reaction required to keep us alive and healthy. We can live for weeks without food but only a few days without water. Water is needed to carry oxygen and nutrients to the cells, to dissolve minerals, for lubricating the joints, moistening and protecting body tissues and organs, and for flushing out waste products. When we don't get enough water a condition known as dehydration occurs. The symptoms of dehydration include thirst, less frequent urination, dark colored urine, dry skin, fatigue and lightheadedness. The symptoms of dehydration in children include dry mouth and tongue, no tears when crying, no wet diapers for 3 hours or more, sunken abdomen, eyes or cheeks, high fever, listlessness, irritability and skin that does not flatten when pinched and released.

Today, with growing populations and increasing pollution of our natural resources, we are facing a water crisis. The World Health Organization estimates that over one billion people lack safe drinking water, and water borne diseases are responsible for the deaths of 4,000 children every day!

It is estimated that the average American uses about 50 gallons (190 l) of water per day. This includes not only water for food preparation and drinking, but all other uses as well, including showering, flushing the toilet, etc. During an emergency, when our municipal water is cut off, we are obviously going to have to make do with much less!

The medical profession tells us that we should drink 8 glasses of water a day. The US National Research Council recommends a total of 2.7 liters (about 3 quarts) of water (including food sources) for women and 3.7 liters (about a gallon) for men. The actual amount of water we need will vary depending on temperature, humidity and activity level. In hot climates and when the level of activity is high, the human body may require up to two gallons (8 l) of water per day to avoid dehydration.

Survivalists usually agree that when computing your water needs during an emergency you should plan on one gallon (4 l) of water per person per day. This allows for drinking, food preparation and minimal washing (such as sponging off.) During hot weather and especially when the activity level is high this amount should be doubled.


A water dispenser like the one pictured above, along with a few extra bottles of purified water, will provide emergency water for drinking and food preparation during a short-term emergency. We keep this unit in our kitchen for our everyday drinking water needs, refilling it with a Nature's Spring Countertop Reverse-Osmosis Water Filter.

When your municipal water fails, one of the easiest places to get a small amount of emergency water is from the water still remaining in the pipes in your house. First shut off the main water valve into your house to prevent the water from flowing back into the water main. Then open a tap at the highest location in your house, to allow air to flow into the pipes, and collect water from a tap at the lowest location in your house. You may also be able to use the water stored in your water heater by collecting it from the drain tap located near the bottom of the unit.

Preparing for a Disaster

Since water is so vitally important, and because so much of it is needed for survival, we should prepare for a disaster by storing as much as we practically can, and by making preparations for collecting additional water. Since the water we collect will most likely be contaminated, we will also need to be prepared to filter and purify our water.

Polluted water is extremely dangerous. It has been estimated that worldwide, water borne diseases are responsible for about half of all hospitalizations. Bacteria in our drinking water is the cause of many deadly diseases, such as cholera, amebic dysentery and life-threatening diarrhea. Even in the best of times the water in our rivers, streams and lakes is unsafe for drinking. Imagine how much worse it will become when our sewage treatment systems are not working properly. There is no doubt that more human waste—the primary source of dangerous disease-causing bacteria—will enter our water supply after a disaster strikes. Even water collected from rain and snow, due to pollution in the air, must be treated before it is consumed. Survivalists tell us that rainwater should be treated pretty much the same as pond or river water.

Storing Water

Even the purist water will go bad due to bacterial growth when stored over an extended period of time. Whenever water is stored for an emergency it should be rotated and replaced regularly. The old water should be used (I use it to water my garden when rain is scarce) and the storage containers should be washed and rinsed and replaced with fresh water each year.

The shelf-life of stored water can be extended by adding a small amount of household chlorine bleach (e.g., Clorox) or Calcium Hypochlorite solution (see below.) To prepare water for storage add 4 drops of chlorine bleach per gallon of water (1 drop per liter). For larger vessels add one teaspoon of chlorine bleach per 30 gallons (4 cc per 100 liters). Don't worry about being exact with your measurements. Avoid buying chlorine bleach with scents or other additives. Use only plain old-fashioned chlorine bleach or calcium hypochlorite (swimming pool "Shock".)

Water can be stored in many different types of containers, from small plastic bottles to 55 gallon (200 l) drums. Old milk containers are not recommended because they can never be cleaned thoroughly enough to prevent spoilage from bacteria. Five gallon plastic containers are great. They will also come in handy if you need to transport water. Fifty-five gallon (200 l) plastic drums are ideal if you have room to store them. These can be quite expensive if purchased new, but there are always used drums available if you search for them. I have purchased used drums for as low as $10 each from retail outlets, and for as little as a few dollars each at estate sales. Be sure that your drums have not been used to store toxic materials. All plastics are slightly porous and it is impossible to completely remove the toxins from the plastic. Beverage bottling companies usually receive their ingredients in food-grade plastic drums that are perfectly suitable for water storage. If you are unsure about what was originally stored in your plastic drum, then use that drum for non-potable water only. Non-potable water will come in very handy for washing and for flushing your toilet. I suggest that you use a large permanent marker to mark your water storage containers as either "Potable" or "Non-Potable."

Collecting Water


Consider yourself fortunate if you have a well from which you can acquire clean fresh water. In fact, if you do not have one you might even consider having one dug on your property just for prolonged emergencies. If you have a well make sure that you have some way of pumping the water out when you are without electricity. An old-fashioned hand operated pump is ideal for emergencies. Perhaps you have a neighbor who has a well and can work out some arrangement with him or her.


Prepare for an emergency now by storing the equipment that you will need to collect rainwater. This will allow you to supplement your stored water reserves during a prolonged emergency. For example, a tarpaulin can be set up to collect rain and funnel it into a pot or other collection vessel.

My favorite way to collect rainwater is from the down spouts that drain the rainwater from my roof. I divert this water into 55 gallon (200 l) plastic drums, like the one pictured above, which is set up to collect the rain that runs off the roof of my garage. Prior to the days of municipal water, people commonly used barrels to collect water in this manner. I have two plastic drums that I have set up to collect rainwater from my roof. During the dry season, I periodically siphon this water through a garden hose to my garden, thus saving considerably on my water bill (and preventing the barrels from becoming a breeding ground for mosquitoes.) This setup comes in handy now, but during a prolonged emergency it could prove to be a real lifesaver.

Finding Water

Rivers, Streams and Lakes

If you do not already know where they are, you should take the time now to locate all the natural water sources that are within walking distance of your home. Don't wait until you are thirsty. Here is a tip that I recently discovered while surfing the Internet: You may be able to use satellite photographs taken from space to help you locate the bodies of water near your home, even if they are on private property that is not easily visible to you. Go to and click on "Download Google Earth" to get the free software. Once you have installed it on your computer you can virtually "fly to" your home by simply entering your address for a bird's eye view of your house and the surrounding area. You can then use the software to zoom in or out and to move around the area surrounding your home to search for bodies of water.

Below is a Google Earth satellite image of the street that I live on. With this image I discovered four small bodies of water that I was previously unaware of (which I have indicated in the photograph with red arrows) .

Below is another satellite image of my street a bit further south. The red arrows which I have drawn on the image show two streams that cross under the road that I travel on every day. During a dire emergency these streams represent potential areas within walking distance of my home where I may be able to collect water. I have printed out these two images and stored them with my survival supplies—just in case!

The Google Earth satellite images of metropolitan areas are much more detailed than those of rural areas. If you live in a rural area your images might not be as detailed as the ones shown above. But in a rural area you will probably be better able to find your local sources of water by exploring your immediate surroundings on foot.

I live in a suburb of a very large metropolitan area. The streams near my home are very polluted, mostly from the runoff of fertilizers and weed killers that my fellow suburbanites use to keep their lawns green and immaculate (and our streams free of fish and frogs.) During a prolonged emergency without municipal water and proper sewage disposal, these streams are likely to be contaminated with sewage as well. Stored water and rainwater would be much preferable, but if there is ever a critical shortage of water, polluted water will certainly be better than no water. This brings us to the next section, how to filter and purify the water that you collect.

Purifying Water

We will now consider the various ways that water can be filtered and purified. As we will see, some methods do not lend themselves well to emergencies. The method you will use will depend on the equipment you have available and how dirty your water is.

There are three basic ways to purify water:
1. Mechanical filtration
2. Heat
3. Chemical treatment
For some situations you may choose to use a combination of these.

Mechanical Filtration

During a prolonged emergency, many of us will be collecting a lot of brown and green water. The first step in treating this water is to let it sit undisturbed for up to 24 hours, allowing the dirt and algae to settle to the bottom leaving relatively clear water on top. Then carefully pour or siphon the clear water off leaving the sediment behind. The water containing the sediment can be used for watering your plants or even for flushing your toilet. Allowing the water to settle in this way will provide a lot less wear and tear on your filtration systems, which in turn will last longer and require less maintenance.

Mechanical filtration involves running your water through some type of filter medium to entrap particulate matter. There are various ways to do this, using both homemade and store-bought devices. One way is to pour the water through sand. You can construct a wooden box, open at both the top and the bottom. Place the box on top of a tarpaulin on a slight incline and fill it with sand. Pour your untreated water in the sand and collect it in a bucket at the bottom of the incline. You can also make a sand filter using a 5 or 6 gallon plastic bucket. Punch small holes in the bottom of the bucket and place a few layers of cloth in the bottom to keep the sand in. Then fill the bucket with sand. Pour the water slowly into the bucket and collect it as it drips from the holes in the bottom. When your sand become nasty you can spread it out in the sun and let the sun's ultraviolet rays purify it.

There are various mechanical water filters that you can purchase that will work very nicely. In general, the charcoal filters that you normally use on your tap are not adequate for water contaminated by microbes or germs. However, they work very well to remove the chlorine or iodine odor and taste after you have chemically treated your water using one of the chemical methods listed below.

Ceramic filters are designed for field use by backpackers and outdoor enthusiasts and are excellent for emergencies. They usually make use of a hand pump that forces the water under pressure through a ceramic element. The ceramic is slightly porous allowing water to pass through while blocking very tiny particulate matter, even most microorganisms. If you suspect that your water is heavily contaminated with microbes you should treat it first chemically (see below) before passing it through the ceramic filter. Ceramic filters work very well and last a long time. You can clean them and use them over and over. I highly recommend that all survival-minded people acquire a good quality ceramic filter. One popular type is illustrated in the photograph below:

The photograph above shows an MSR ceramic filter attached to a four liter dromedary bag. This is a popular setup with back packers. The threads on the bottom of MSR filters will also fit onto Nalgene bottles like the yellow one pictured here.


Whenever the municipal water supply has been contaminated with bacteria, local authorities will issue a boil order. They usually recommend that you bring your water to a rolling boil for at least five minutes before using it for drinking or cooking. This is clearly overkill. They are assuming that there is plenty of energy for heating the water and they would rather people err on the side of overkill since they know that many people will not fully comply with their recommendations anyway. In an emergency, energy is likely to be scarce, so you will want to conserve it as much as possible. Contaminated water can be adequately treated with heat without bringing it to a boil by using the following water pasteurization process.

Water Pasteurization

All that is necessary to kill all the germs, viruses and parasites in contaminated water is to bring the water to a temperature of 150 degrees F (65 C) and keep it there for at least 6 minutes. Less time is required if you heat the water to a higher temperature. If energy is in critical supply, water pasteurization can be easily accomplished using a homemade solar heating device or a solar oven. A very simple solar water pasteurization device can be made using an empty two liter plastic soft drink bottle and an aluminum soda can. Paint the outside of the aluminum can black using nontoxic paint. Cut the two liter plastic soft drink bottle in half so you can put the aluminum can inside it. Put water in the aluminum can, put the aluminum can inside the plastic bottle, and put the entire unit in the direct sun.

You can also pasteurize water using any solar cooker. For more ideas on solar pasteurization see the following web page:

Chemical Treatments

After your stored water supply is depleted, your best source for water will likely be precipitation, either rainwater or snow. This water is relatively clean, when compared to pond water, but it still has to be treated before it is consumed. Untreated rainwater will do nicely for washing and bathing. But for drinking and cooking it will need to be run through a water filter or treated with a little chlorine bleach or tincture of iodine.

Common household chlorine bleach (e.g., Clorox) can be effectively used for water purification. Add 3 drops of chlorine bleach per quart (liter) of water and agitate. Double the amount of bleach if the water is turbid. Let the water stand for 30 minutes and then smell it. There should be a slight odor of chlorine. If there is no chlorine odor repeat the process and let the water stand for another 30 minutes.

An alternative to chlorine bleach is 2% tincture of iodine (the iodine used for treating minor wounds.) Use 5 drops of iodine tincture per quart of water and let it stand for 30 minutes.

Both chlorine bleach and tincture of iodine are essential items to store in your emergency supplies. The tincture of iodine will double as part of your first aid equipment. Be aware that both have fairly short shelf-lives—about two years. If your chlorine bleach is over one year old you may have to double the amounts recommended. As with all of your emergency supplies you should rotate your stock using the old and replacing it periodically with new stock. A great alternative to chlorine bleach, which doesn't have the shelf-life problem, is calcium hypochlorite:

Calcium Hypochlorite, also known as as "Pool Shock," is a great chemical treatment for water. It is available from swimming pool and hot tub supply stores in granular powder or tablet form. In this dry form it has a very long shelf-life, unlike liquid chlorine bleach or tincture of iodine. A one pound bag of calcium hypochlorite in granular form will treat up to 10,000 gallons of water and as of this writing costs less than $4. To make a chlorine solution for disinfecting water dissolve one heaping teaspoon (about one quarter ounce) of 73-78% granular calcium hypochlorite into two gallons (8 l) of water. (Do not drink this solution! Label it as poison.) To disinfect water for drinking, add one part of this chlorine solution to 100 parts water. Stir well and let the mixture sit for at least a half hour before drinking. As with chlorine bleach or tincture of iodine, the taste can be improved by pouring your chemically treated water through activated carbon before drinking. Once mixed with water the shelf-life of calcium hypochlorite is similar to that of liquid chlorine bleach, so the solution should not be prepared until it is time to use it for treating your water.

Other Methods of Water Purification

A few other methods for water purification are mentioned below. Some of these, for reasons that will become clear, will probably not be suitable for emergency situations but I mentioned them for the sake of completeness.

Water Distillation involves boiling water in an enclosed container and then trapping the steam that comes off and condensing it back into water which is collected in another container. Any contaminants in the water are left behind in the boiling water or destroyed by the heat. Distillation produces very pure water. However, as you can imagine, distillation consumes a tremendous amount of energy and is therefore expensive and inefficient.

Pictured above is a "Midi Still" home water distillation unit. It is useful for making your own distilled water but is not suitable for emergencies because it requires a lot of electricity. Due to high energy consumption, water distillation is also not the best way to purify your water even during normal times. Reverse Osmosis (described later) is a much better way for making your tap water safe for drinking.

Condensation is related to water distillation and may be a useful technique for obtaining small amounts of purified water during emergencies. A "solar still" can be made by digging a hole in the ground in a sunny location. The hole should be about three feet (1 m) wide or larger and shaped like an inverted cone or funnel with the deepest part in the center. A collection container, such as a can or pot, is placed in the center of the hole. Clear plastic sheeting is then placed over the hole covering it completely and rocks are used to hold down the edges. Another small rock is placed in the center of the plastic sheet, just above the collection container, so that the plastic sheeting forms an inverted cone. The sun causes evaporation of water from the ground, which condenses on the inside of the plastic sheeting and runs down the plastic to drip into the collection container.

Reverse Osmosis (RO) uses high pressure, such as the water pressure normally found in your tap, to force water through a semipermeable membrane. As with the ceramic filters mentioned above, the semipermeable membrane allows water molecules to pass through but traps particulate matter, even very tiny microbes. Countertop reverse osmosis filters are not very practical during emergencies because they rely on the high pressure that is normally found in our municipal water pipes to force water through the membrane. These units are, however, very efficient during normal times when the water pressure in your tap is normal, and I recommend them as a means for making your tap water safe for drinking. Gas molecules, like chlorine, are smaller than water molecules and are not trapped by the membrane. Reverse osmosis filters are therefore usually multistage filters with one or more stages consisting of activated carbon (or "charcoal") to remove the gases. Reverse osmosis membranes do remove fluoride. Below is a picture of a countertop reverse osmosis filter. This is the type of filter I recommend for use during normal times. I use the Nature's Spring RO filter available from Nature's Sunshine Products:

Charcoal Filters use activated carbon to purify water. Most inexpensive countertop water filters use activated carbon. These are good for removing chlorine, fluorine and some toxins to make tap water safer and better tasting, similar to good quality bottled water. However, they do not remove heavy metals like mercury or lead and they do not remove bacteria. For home use, during normal times, I prefer a quality reverse osmosis unit which includes an activated carbon stage, like the one mentioned and illustrated above. During emergencies, when you are using a chemical means such as chlorine bleach, calcium hypochlorite (swimming pool "Shock"), or iodine to purify your water, it would be nice, but not necessary, to be able to pass your water through activated carbon to remove the unpleasant chlorine or iodine taste.

Silver, due to its excellent antibacterial properties, is also used in some types of very efficient water purification systems, usually in conjunction with other filtration media such as activated carbon and a particulate entrapment medium of some kind. The silver contained in these filters kills the microbes while the activated carbon neutralizes and removes toxins. Due to its efficiency, durability and reliability, a good quality silver filtration unit can be an excellent asset during an emergency.

Three highly portable water filters suitable for backpacking, bug out bags, or emergency home use are pictured above. The two filters on the right contain silver. One is shown assembled and ready for use while the other (in the foreground) is ready for travel or storage. In the center is an inexpensive particulate/carbon filter. On the left is the MSR ceramic filter discussed above, attached to a Nalgene bottle ready to receive filtered water.

Conserving Water

As we saw earlier, due to overpopulation and pollution, clean fresh water is a diminishing resource worldwide. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) states that runoff from driveways, streets and yards is the single biggest threat to the health of American waterways. According to the EPA, Americans apply 67 million pounds of pesticides to their lawns every year. Agricultural run-off of fertilizers and pesticides has created a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico where the Mississippi River enters and for miles out into the Gulf.

Even during normal times water should be conserved as much as possible, and efforts should be made to minimize the pollution of our streams, lakes and oceans. In the future, hopefully more organic methods will be employed for growing crops and the use of chemicals can be reduced. Homeowners can reduce pollution of our fresh water by refraining from using chemical fertilizers and weed killers on their lawns. Ironically, two of the weeds that people find most troublesome—dandelions and plantains—are also edible plants that can serve as excellent survival foods (more on these "weeds" later.)

During times of emergency, when the municipal water has ceased to flow, even more attention will need to be given to water conservation. Toilet flushing, for example, will have to be kept to a minimum. Excessively long and frequent showers will have to be eliminated. We will also have to learn how to reuse water as much as possible.

If our sewer systems are backed up, care must be taken to insure the proper disposal of human and animal wastes. We must endeavor not to pollute our streams and lakes, which will no doubt be serving as someone's—perhaps our own—source of fresh water. Human waste is a very dangerous contaminant of water resulting in many deadly waterborne diseases including life-threatening diarrhea. We will discuss proper waste disposal, including disposal of human waste, in a later chapter of this web site.

Reuse of Gray Water

Gray water refers to water that has been used once, but remains potentially usable for something else. You may have noticed that the water that you have just used to bathe in or to wash your dishes or clothes is tinged a dingy gray color. This is due mostly to the soap that remains in the water. Rather than simply discarding this water, it can be used to flush toilets or to water your plants or irrigate your garden. The soap in the water is harmless to plants. So before you pour your gray water down the drain, think about the ways you may be able to reuse it—just one more time!

Develop these kinds of commonsense conservation habits during normal times and they will be a cinch during times of emergency. Today, they will allow you to protect the earth and save money. In the future they may allow you to live more comfortably and perhaps even save a life.

Action Step 8: Planning For Your Water Needs

A. How Much Water? Open your Action Planner to the page where, in Action Steps 1 and 2, you made a list of the potential emergencies that concern you along with the scope and duration that each emergency is likely to involve. Consider now the longest duration that you considered likely for the events that cause you the most concern. Is it one week? One month? Six months?

Now consider the number of people in your family and figure on needing at least one gallon (4 l) of water per person per day. Do you have other family members who might move in during an emergency or a neighbor who you might want to help? (Your neighbors will probably not be as prepared, and you must decide if you will be willing and able to help them.) Multiply the number of people by the number of days. That is the minimum number of gallons of water that you will need to get through the longest siege that you foresee. Write that number down in your Action Planner along with the words "water needed." If that sounds like a lot, remember that you should be able to replenish some of your water supply by collecting precipitation (rain or snow) or by scrounging from a lake or stream. But to do that you must have the necessary supplies, including purification and filtration equipment.

If you will be able to collect additional water to help replenish your stored water, you might be wondering how much water you will actually need to store. I recommend that you store at least a 30 day supply. So multiply the number of people by 30 and that will give you the minimum number of gallons that you will need to put into storage. Write that number in your Action Planner along with the words "minimum storage." Remember that one gallon per person per day is the absolute minimum, not allowing for washing. Additional water could turn out to be greatly appreciated by everyone! If practical you should store two gallons per person per day.

B. Water Checklists: In Action Step 6 you created a "Get" list and a "Do" list for water. Turn to that page now. In the "Get" column begin making a list of the items that you would like to acquire to meet your water needs, including collection materials, water treatment chemicals, water filters, etc. Continue on the back side of the page if necessary. In the right column under "Do" begin making a list of the things that you would like to do, or accomplish, to help you meet your goal for water storage. This list might include things like: Locate water sources around my home, Ask neighbors about local wells, Build a system to collect rainwater, etc. When you acquire an item or accomplish a task check it off your list. As you think of additional items add them to your lists. You do not have to run out and buy everything that you need right now. But start somewhere, even if it is only with one five gallon storage container. You can add to your stock as you are able, until you have reached your goal. Even though you do not have everything that you need right now, you will have made a start, and you will have a plan. It will only be a matter of time before you will reach your goals.

Below is a sample "GET" list of items that you may want to acquire and a sample "DO" list of things that you might want to accomplish to help you prepare for your water needs during an emergency. Use these lists to help you formulate your own check lists:

Printer Friendly List Printer Friendly List
    Water "GET" Checklist:
  1. [  ] Countertop water filter (e.g., Reverse Osmosis filter)
  2. [  ] Portable/backpacker's water filter (e.g., Ceramic filter)
  3. [  ] 2.5-5 Gallon (10-20 l) water storage containers (also for transporting water)
  4. [  ] 55 gallon (200 l) plastic drum
  5. [  ] Calcium Hypochlorite (swimming pool "Shock") or Chlorine bleach (e.g., Clorox)
  6. [  ] 2% Tincture of iodine
  7. [  ] Tarpaulin (for collecting rainwater)
  8. [  ] Bottled water (for bug out bags)
  9. [  ] Water treatment tablets
    Water "DO" Checklist:
  1. [  ] Locate the natural sources of water near my home
  2. [  ] Ask neighbors about wells that may be in the area
  3. [  ] Build a system for collecting rainwater
  4. [  ] Make a solar still
Continue to Chapter 5: Food

Recommended Reading:

Recommended Products:

Visit The Nature's Sunshine Products Site for:

Warning: Ordinary activated carbon water filters do not remove fluoride and heavy metals from your drinking water! To remove these and the other deadly toxins and drugs mentioned in these videos, you must use a Reverse Osmosis filter. The one I recommend is the
Nature's Spring Reverse-Osmosis

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Continue to Chapter 5: Food

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