This post was originally written for and published on Colombia Eco Travel.
“Stupid gringos, stop drinking the water,” my friend from Spain exasperatedly demanded. He had a point; somehow, my boyfriend and I both were infected with water-related illnesses within 6 months of living in Colombia. His was picked up by absent-mindedly drinking the tap water in Cartagena, and mine in Medellín – causing me to end a trip two days early in lieu of a personal tour of a clinic – IV included. I was back to normal in a couple of days, but unfortunately this really did make me a “stupid gringo.” The reality is half of Colombia does not have access to clean drinking water. Some lessons are forever learned the hard way, but it wasn’t the first time my ignorance and privilege were challenged while abroad, and it surely won’t be the last.
The contamination of Colombia’s drinking water comes from pesticides, fertilizers, mining, discharge of industrial, livestock, and human waste, and the occasional oil spill. The government has taken some initiative in remedying these problems, but they’re far from solved. In La Guajira, home to Colombia’s biggest indigenous population - the Wayuu, families struggle to collect enough water to survive – corruption, mismanaged funds, and a place at the bottom of the priority list have been of no help, despite the Health Director Fernando de la Hoz’s assessment, “More people die of drought and dirty water in Colombia than from the armed conflict. And the risk of dying from illnesses related to water is four or five times higher in La Guajira than anywhere else in the country.” Yet, the local coal mine uses 7.1 million gallons of water per day trying to keep up with the coal demand from the U.S. and Europe, as the documentary “El Río Que Se Robaron” (Translation: The River That They Stole) illustrates.
My research on this subject humbled me, and as I began to write this article about tips for avoiding water-related illnesses, I couldn’t bring myself to do it without sharing the Wayuu’s pressing struggle for survival. In 2016, clean drinking water is regrettably still a privilege – not a human right. Thus with every drink taken using the following five tips for avoiding water-related illnesses in Colombia, let us reflect on the impact we have on one another in the choices we make.
1. Drink sterilized water only. You can boil water for 3 minutes, treat with iodine tables, or invest the innovative LifeStraw bottle or SteriPen to avoid bottled water.
2. Avoid drinks with unfiltered ice (“Sin hielo por favor”).
3. Order juices with milk instead of water (“Con leche sin agua por favor”).
4. Avoid raw vegetables (especially lettuce) and fruits (except those with a thick covering like oranges, bananas, or melons).
5. Be smart about street vendors. Look for vendors who don’t handle money and food with the same hands, and choose a vendor with quick turnover to ensure food hasn’t been sitting out for long.
These recommendations are not unique to Colombia; they can be used around the world in the too many countries where safe drinking water is not available.