Monday, March 21, 2011

New Article Series: The Urban Survivalist - Water

This is a series of articles I've wanted to write for a while now, as it is a subject of interest to me, but with the earthquake and reactor troubles in Japan recently, I've felt a push towards getting a few of these articles written, or at least getting the ball rolling.

As you might have noted if you read the "About Me" page, I grew up in Alaska in the late 70's, and then moved to rural Maine in the mid-80's. My father has been a cold-weather survival instructor, fire chief, paramedic, back country rescue expert, and Maine Guide for years, and between his tutelage, as well as family friends, professional colleagues, and my own experiences and research, wilderness survival is something that I have been familiar with my entire life. Even now, after living in the city for 15 years, I still feel comfortable in the woods, and I know that the best tool for ensuring survival in the wild is nestled right between my ears.

Living in the city for so long, however, has also made me think a lot about urban survival. This isn't necessarily "Zombie Apocalypse / Nuclear Winter" hyperbolizing; after seeing what happened after Hurricane Katrina and in other areas of urban buildup post-disaster, it's important to take some time to think about short-term urban survival. One of the ironies of urban living is that while you have "access to everything", in general the population is far in excess of what any supplies in place are capable of supporting at any given time; a neighborhood would eat it's local market to the bare shelves in 24 hours if no other source of food is available. In a rural environment, the population density is much lower, and people in general have more on hand; shopping is often done by the week rather than the day, freezers are often stocked, lots of canned goods are on hand, and gardens are often maintained and harvested all summer long. We city-dwellers often laugh when we come home and say "There's nothing to eat in the house!", but what if there's nothing to eat, period?

To ground this discussion a little better and keep it more close to home, late last spring one of the main water pipelines into the metro Boston area broke a number of miles outside of the city, and that line was feeding contaminated, non-potable water into the city in the middle of some rather warm (high 80's, low 90's) weather. For about three days, Bostonians did not have potable running water, and the effect was pretty immediate. I went over to the grocery store next door just an hour or so after the announcement, and the drinking water was completely stripped from the shelves. I of course didn't have a stockpile of bottled water in the apartment. What to do?

- You can always boil the water. The problem wasn't chemical or radioactive contaminants, but bacteriological. Because of this, worse came to worse, I could just boil it and let it cool. For hand-washing or dish-washing (i.e., not drinking) water, you'd want to do this anyways even if you have a supply of bottled drinking water. Beyond boiling however (in the event, say, of a chemical contaminant), I could use:

- Vending machines. I wound up going in to the campus and buying a half dozen 20 oz bottles of water from a vending machine in the basement of a building that doesn't see much foot traffic. Vending machines are often overlooked because its something you walk by every day and don't really think about, but a well-stocked vending machine contains a surprising amount of water (or food if you're willing to have a mostly-snacks diet).

- Office Water Coolers. Although our current machines use a piped-in water feed, at the time, I could have simply filled water bottles by going in to work that night and tapping off the bottled supply for the office water fountains. In a true emergency situation, simply grabbing a couple of the sealed 5-gallon water bottles and carting them home on a folding luggage two-wheeler (concealed with a plastic trash bag of course) wouldn't be a bad idea.

- Dehumidifiers. Many homes have a dehumidifier in the basement to keep out the damp, and some offices as well (especially those with archival spaces). A good dehumidifier during a hot, humid Bostonian summer can easily accumulate a gallon of water every 12 hours. If you have power, of course. If you don't, there's always...

- Moisture Tent. If you have access to some open space, like the roof of your apartment building or condo, or your backyard, setting up a moisture tent (also known as a solar still) can provide a limited source of water. It's not a very efficient way of collecting water, but for emergency situations, it's better than dehydrating.

That's it for now. I'll return to this subject and many others in future articles. Feel free to comment and provide further information and links if you like.


Jim said...

Actually, I'd think twice about using water from the dehumidifier for drinking. That water tends to have a lot of microbes, dust, and other nasty stuff in it, unless you habitually clean the coils with bleach every day. I'm told even boiling it won't necessarily kill everything, but that's only what I've heard, not firsthand info.

Jack Badelaire said...

Well, I suppose it depends on the alternative. If I know there's a hazardous chemical in the tap water, I'd take my chances with condensation water - especially if the problem for you isn't purifying the water, but simply getting it.

I hope to write an article on making water potable soon. However, in short, you could use the dehumidifier or a solar still to get the water, and then a survival purifier to make that water potable.

Jim said...

Sure, use the dehumidifier to catch the water, then filter/purify it. But, I wanted to make sure you (and your readers) understood that it is indeed a two-step process. While the condensation is technically distilled water, it is far from pure coming out of the machine.

Jack Badelaire said...

Very true. I guess it would all depend on what your definition of "acceptably pure water" would be.

At the very least, one can add the appropriate amount of iodine to the condensed water and pour it through a straining cloth. Not a perfect solution, and if you're that desperate, you probably aren't getting power for the dehumidifier anyhow, but I'm mostly brainstorming and trying to point out some alternatives.

But you do make a very good point - in an urban survival situation, the last thing you want is a bad case of giardia when the nearest hospital is flooded with disaster victims. Making sure your food and drink is safe is critical.

Machine Trooper said...

Great article, Jack. 95% of city dwellers in America have no clue how to survive when all they take for granted disappears.

Jack Badelaire said...

Hey, thanks Henry - glad you like.

For the record, I don't make any claims to be a "Survival Expert". I'm a guy with an interest in the subject, and these articles will be my exploration of the subject, so it's definitely going to be a learning experience. If someone wants to correct me or point me in a new direction on the subject, please don't hesitate! The more dialogue there is, the more information we glean.