Pictures from Senegal

Sunday, January 30

Drinking Water

Travelling in under-developed countries can be scary for many a reason, but when my family came to visit clean water was my most pressing concern for them. A trifecta of parasites, bacteria and viruses (caused by human waste) are waiting at every turn to render even the most enthusiastic traveler incapacitated and glued to a bathroom. Being in-the-know myself, I stocked up on bottled water and we carried it everywhere we went. However, this doesn’t mean there’s a lack of other options.
The most important thing to know, If you’re in the market to skip all three pathogens on your next trip, is to look for a water treatment option labeled “purifier” as this seems to be standard lingo for something that is a proven combater. And it’s a must for the unaccustomed visitors to Senegal.  

Filters are the best option for cloudy waters. Portable filtering devices are available to travelers via outdoors and camping suppliers, but one should be warned that they are most effective for parasites and bacteria leaving drinkers vulnerable to viruses that might be (and probably are) present. Most travel guides recommend augmenting this option with iodine treatments to kill off residual problems. The Peace Corps equivalent is to mix in small amounts of chlorine bleach with the use of a dropper, as bleach is a readily available option in most corners of Senegal. Mix 2 drops per liter of pre-filtered water or 4 drops per liter of unfiltered water. And pack drink mix packets.

Iodine or chlorine based water treatment drops or tablets are available at outdoor stores or pharmacies. They kill most mini-critters but skip a few parasites. Carrying a small stock to remote locations is probably a safe bet, but don’t expect the water to taste decent in any way, shape or form after using them. My advice would be to pack some Gatorade mix, which also helps combat dehydration, along with this option and be sure to let water sit for 30 minutes before drinking. Also, these products are not available on the ground in Senegal, they’d have to be brought or shipped here from the Western world… so no, I don’t use them.

Steri-pens are light-saber-esque cootie zappers! We’re talking about a device that literally sterilizes microbes making them unable to reproduce and therefore harm you. This is a Volunteer favorite because it takes up as much room as your hairbrush in a backpack and kills the trifecta with a dip of the quartz based ultra violet tip into your glass or bottle of water. And if it’s small-size-versus-effectiveness ratio didn’t grab your attention then consider that after treatment wait time is non-existent and the flavor of the water won’t be tampered with. To be fair, you will have to pack batteries (something not easily come by in Senegal) and be conscious of breaking the light bulb… but I would still put it as the best option for anyone looking to cross Senegal off of their travel map.

Ok, in reality, barring a cost benefit analysis on steri-pens versus buying water, I can’t make a judgment call about which is the best option because they are both great ideas. At least two trustworthy bottling brands come to mind for a thirsty person in Senegal: Kirene and Fontaine. Standard sized carrying bottles, 1.5L large bottles, and even 10L jugs are sold around the country. Still more producers exist that offer up serving-sized plastic bags of water sold virtually anywhere for pennies- five of them to be exact. Just be weary that although the water inside is safe there’s no telling where the plastic bag itself has been; wipe it down, clean it off, or pour the water into a glass before consuming it. And while we’re on the subject, don’t expect a cold bottle, without a label or intact seal, that’s sold at a discount to be a good deal. It’s a reused bottle filled with tap water. Walk- no, run- away.  

Experts may say that boiling water is the best method to kill your bacteria, parasite, and viral infected waters if done for 3 minutes or more because it is always 100% effective. But who has the utensils, time, or patience to wait for water to cool in Senegal? Even as a volunteer who’s got all the time in the world on her hands, I never find myself that bored. I don’t recommend this to fellow travelers coming to Senegal, unless your bottled stash has been depleted, steri-pen is broken, and iodine tablets are all used. Even then, I’d figure something else out. Don’t waste your precious exploration time building a heat source, boiling, and then waiting for water to cool. You’ll probably be for water by the time all that is done… and probably sick by then anyway.

And this brings me to another comparative analysis conversation. I’ll reiterate a point I’ve taken to heart since my days of Breast Cancer 3-Days (or 60 miles) of walking: when it comes to dehydration versus diarrhea, choose diarrhea! I kid you not, friend. Any medical professional will tell you it’s easier to treat yourself for diarrhea than to be treated for dehydration. In the land of sand, I can become dehydrated quickly; often times faster than I can get back to safe water essentially putting myself at risk of passing out. Diarrhea may keep me constantly very aware of the nearest toilet but at least I’m conscious. And finding treatment can wait until I back in a populated area, where as dehydrated individuals need immediate attention- not easy to come by in West Africa. So always choose to drink the sketchy water before going thirsty. Always.

If you’re eating out, remember that the untreated waters of Senegal are used to make various delicious dishes. Items such as boiled veggies, or hot teas and coffees are safe, but unless you’re at a high-end restaurant you’d be best advised to skip the fresh salad, ice water and local juices. Restaurants in Dakar will be familiar with techniques for cleaning vegetables or preparing other items with clean water, but the same can’t be said for every remote destinations spot. Local juice flavors are best consumed from syrups and cartons bought at western stores where the producer is a trusted source.

As for me, I’ve had my fair share of water related stories. From accidentally drinking a larger quantity than necessary of bleach to running behind the bushes with diarrhea, I’ve gained experience in it all. For my first 8 months or so I carried a water bottle with me like I’d die without it. And when that stock ran out, but I was too far away from a refill, I’d buy some. If there wasn’t any to buy, take a deep breath, I’d just drink what was available. Sometimes I’d get sick, sometimes I wouldn’t. Sometimes it’d be 3 days later, sometimes 30 minutes. It’s Mboro’s version of Russian roulette.

People always told me my neighborhood’s water (pumped in from the factory) was filtered, yet I was hesitant to trust them. My family and I share a refrigerator and thus a place to chill our bottles of water. Some of my youngest family members have yet to grasp the idea that my water bottle is off limits (as its treated water) and so they’d drink from it, replace with normal tap water, and throw it back in the fridge. By the time I caught on I’d been drinking the tap water from my house without issue for months. The water in my neighborhood is in fact filtered or I’m already hardened to it.

Peace Corps Senegal issues every incoming volunteer a water filter with charcoal “candles” to filter tap or well-drawn water. In addition we’re given droppers to help us measure the bleach-to-water ratios. It was about a year into my service when I packed up my water filter for good, around the same time my third water bottle rendered itself useless. I just found it easier to share bottles with the family. Since Peace Corps Medical Staff also equips us with appropriate and sufficient quantities of meds to cure most of the common G.I. track issues, I don’t worry about it too much. I’ve learned how to read my digestive system and can now safely anticipate its next move… meaning I can tell when a problem is in the works and I will simply stay home until it passes.

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