Safe Drinking Water in East Africa
East Africa is not a particularly comfortable place to visit, but it is an exciting one. Amenities, like safe drinking water, are poor in non-tourist areas, but wildlife abounds. The cities are generally crowded, but if you know what to look for there are bright spots everywhere. The famed Maasai live in East Africa with their heavy neck jewelry and herds of cattle and ways of living that seem "wild" to the "cultivated" West.
Most of East Africa is dry and dusty, but there are swamps, lakes, and fertile mountains in some areas. Fresh food is sporadically available, although tourist companies provide well for their customers. Available water can be toxic. It's not really a comfortable place to visit, but it is exhilarating.
East African Countries
In East Africa water is available or not, depending on the region. Over the years, East Africans have cut down the majority of forests for firewood, which inhibits the fall of rain and starts the process of desertification. Hence, most of East Africa is desert or grassland. Temperatures generally range from 53-77º F (15-25º C) year round.
The following countries are included in the East African region: Burundi, Djibuti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Somalia, South Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda.
East African Countries
Attractions of East Africa
Tourists go to East Africa primarily for the wildlife, but also for the archeological digs at Olduvai Gorge, mountain climbing, and cultural curiosity. East Africa is where you find massive herds of antelope, zebra, wildebeest, and other herbivores. They, in turn, draw carnivores - beast, bird, and man - including poachers, which can be dangerous. The animals themselves, although exciting and great to photograph, can also be dangerous . . . but a more insidious danger is the water.
Water Sources in East Africa
Rain: Wet seasons in East Africa are generally two - the months of April and October through November - except for the Ethiopian Highlands, where rain falls throughout the summer months. (This is the source of the Blue Nile.) In the mountains it can rain up to 98" per year, as compared with 15" in California, whereas the extremely dry regions of northern Kenya and Greater Somalia go many years without rain.
Rivers: East Africa hosts three of the longest rivers in the world - the Nile, the Congo, and the Jubba. These rivers run north to the Mediterranean, west to the Atlantic, and southeast to the Indian Ocean, respectively.
The Nile has two sources, the Blue Nile in the Ethiopian Highlands and the White Nile in the Congo in Central Africa. The two sources join up in northern Ethiopia to form a river that is altogether 4123 miles (6650 km), flowing all the way up through the Sudan and Egypt to the Mediterranean Sea, nearly as long as the Amazon River in South America.
The Congo River flows from the mountains of East Africa westward into Tanzania, Burundi, & Rwanda and on across the continent to the Atlantic Ocean. In addition to being one of the longest rivers in the world (2920 miles, 4700 km) it is also the deepest, at more than 720 ft deep (220 m).
The Jubba River flows from the Ahmar Mountains in Ethiopia east and south to the Indian Ocean, covering a wide swath of Somalia and the northern part of Kenya with all of its tributaries. This expansive watershed is primarily savanna, very fertile, and hosts lots of wildlife.
Lakes: While much of East Africa is very dry, there are a few areas with an abundance of lakes, some large and some small. Here are the three largest:
East African Lakes
Lake Victoria is the 2nd largest lake in the world, after Lake Superior, measuring 250 miles at its greatest width. It covers an area the size of Ireland and is surrounded by Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania. Oddly, this lake receives more rainfall in the middle of it than anywhere along its edges.
- Lake Tanganyika, on the southwest edge of the East African region, is bordered on the north by Burundi and the east by Tanzania. At 420 miles long, it's the longest lake in the world. It has only one outlet, so water is high in minerals and is more alkaline and "hard" than are either of the other two lakes.
- Lake Nyasa/Malawi lies at the southern border of East Africa (Tanzania). The lake is 360 miles long and up to 25 miles wide. It carries a wider variety of cichlids than anywhere in the world - 500 species of fish found nowhere else. Brightly colored and popular, they are used to populate aquariums worldwide.
Groundwater: So far East Africa has used its groundwater supplies only minimally, as UNESCO discovered in early 2012. Preparatory to providing more water for East Africans, the agency used high-imagery satellites to locate good sites for drilling. The images showed billions of gallons of water underground that Ethiopia, Tanzania, and Kenya could tap into.
Drinking Water Supply
Before countries develop water transportation infrastructure, most of their populations congregate around lakes, rivers, and streams. This has led to pollution of those water bodies by human, animal, and industrial wastes. The biggest challenge that developing governments face is the building and maintenance of good water systems.
Ironically, armed conflicts in countries in the region are serious deterrents to building infrastructure, yet the lack of water availability is often a major cause of these conflicts. Here are three potential solutions to the problem:
The International Committee of the Red Cross is working with local nonprofits in remote villages to establish reliable water supplies. They have a project going in Akobo, Sudan - a remote village with 50,000 people (20,000 refugees) - to pull out groundwater, store it in tanks high aboveground, and use gravity to distribute water to central pumps. Solar panes power the pumps. This project has already proven successful in Eritrea and will be set up next in Kenya.
- The government of Uganda has set up Hand Pump Mechanics Associations to provide all populated areas with functional hand pumps by 2013 - pumps that the community itself knows how to maintain. One third of the population of Uganda now has access to safe drinking water.
- This 3rd solution is a possibility based on the experience of a tea plantation in Tanzania. This plantation is reputed to have 32 hailstorms per year. The only cause found so far is an ice-nucleating bacteria called Pseudomonas syringae that grows on tea and other crop plants. This bacteria, because it freezes what it touches, also causes rain when blown by the wind into the atmosphere, i.e. water vapor condenses around it. Could the bacteria be "cultivated" specifically to create rain in areas with drought?
Drinking Water Dangers
There are three main water issues directly affecting visitors to East Africa, which we will address next. One is the availability of water itself, one is the quality of the water available, and the other is the quality of water provided by industry in the form of bottled water.
Water scarcity/drought: East Africa is currently going through its worst drought in 60 years. In many areas children have to trek over 12 miles for water, according to Plan International. The spring of 2010 brought torrential rains, which flooded tourist lodges in southern Kenya. Both dry years and flash floods can be traced to massive deforestation in mountains and foothills.
Water contamination: Because of the open pollution of many of these water sources, waterborne illnesses abound. Some are caused by effluent from upstream mining operations, but most are waterborne diseases from human and animal wastes.
The following water parasites are commonly found in the area: Cryptosporidium, giardia, bilharzia (schistosomiasis), e.coli, typhoid fever, cholera. Symptoms of waterborne illnesses include diarrhea, vomiting, nausea, fever, aches and/or chills. Bilharzia is a pathogen carried by snails in water bodies, which insert themselves under the skin. Hence, it is wise not to swim or wade in local water bodies, unless the skin is completely covered.
Unlabeled bottled water: International standards require bottlers to include analysis data on their labels, but some local bottlers do not. Nor do they include manufacture or expiration dates. There are no national guidelines and consumers in those countries have not demanded them, due to the ignorance of potential dangers. Hence, there are some bottlers that pull water from tap water or directly from the rivers, and others that source well, but reuse bottles that have been emptied.
Water Tips for Staying Healthy
Luckily for Westerners, there are enough of us who have travelled extensively and written about it, that good ideas for preservation of health abound. Here are several tips:
Research your destination, including water sources, and prepare ahead.
Buy medicines at home before you leave. Consider immunization against some of the more serious diseases, such as cholera.
Take with you the tools and supplies you'll need to create healthy water.
Treat water provided in transit with care. A recent EPA study showed that up to 1/3 of US airplanes are inadvertently providing contaminated water to their passengers.
Once there, spend your nights in areas where there is a strong tourist, Western, or United Nations presence. These areas will most likely have healthy water available.
- Eat and drink wisely. In restaurants, ask for water without ice.
- Make sure the seal on bottled water you buy is not broken and the bottles are properly labeled.
- Treat water before bathing or brushing teeth to kill skin parasites.
- Don't swim or wade in local water bodies without covering your skin.
- If the locals are drinking tap water without ill effect, there is no known occurrence of giardiasis, and you are going to be staying in one location for four weeks or more, you may want to drink the water to allow your body time to acquire some of the local microbes. Start slowly and let yourself adapt.
Use solar water pasteurization, if available, to rid toxic water of bacteria and other disease-causing organisms. Or use the simpler SODIS method of baking water in plastic bottles in the sun for several hours.
Stay confident in your body's ability to be healthy. Our bodies are incredibly resilient. I lived in Bostwana with the Peace Corps for two years in the early '70s and, without being particularly careful, never had a problem. A friend of mine was confident and careless, though, swimming in the local river without protection, and he got bilharzia.
Safe Drinking Water -Tools & Supplies
Here are several supplies and pieces of equipment you can take with you to make sure your water supply is safe. Note that airlines will allow bottled water, as long as it is purchased inside the security checkpoint.
Pan or kettle to boil water (steel, not aluminum)
Iodine or chlorine tablets (will not work with cryptosporidium or bilharzia)
Boots, gloves, and other protective clothing, if doing water research
If you have traveled before this and have tips not covered here, please share them in the Comments section below. Otherwise, just let us know what you think. Prepare well and enjoy your trip.
Tip: Boil water before drinking.
For Further Research:
- Sudan/East Africa - Solar Powered Drinking Water Project
ICRC setting up solar water project in Akobo, Sudan.
- eTurboNews.com - Saburu Park Floods
East African torrential rains Samburu Park flooded, tourists safe.
- New Scientist - Water Contamination Found
An investigation of over 300 planes reveals that 15% of craft contained drinking water tainted with harmful bacteria.
- Water pasteurization - Solar Cooking
A good introduction to solar water pasteurization and food safety.