IAMAT |International Association of Medical Assistance to Travellers| IAMAT |International Association of Medical Assistance to Travellers|

Travel Health Journal

Two hands with water. Photo by Tiburi, Pixabay.

Are you a water-responsible traveller?

Every year on March 22, the United Nations celebrates the importance of water through World Water Day. Clean water and access to safe water sources are essential for the health and growth of communities, but almost a third of the global population continues to lack access to safe drinking water. As the effects of climate change contribute to greater water instability, this year’s World Water Day theme, “Nature for Water”, focuses on solving water-related issues through nature-based interventions such as landscape restoration, sustainable agriculture, and water disinfection practices.

To celebrate World Water Day, we ask and answer: How can we be more water-responsible travellers?

Travel and water use

Travel gives us the opportunity to explore the connections we share with others around the world. Despite a shared need for water, not all of us share equal access to clean and safe water. As travellers, being conscious of the water situation at our destination is crucial for our own health as well as the health of the communities we visit. Here are some key factors to consider when we travel.

Drinking water

Wherever you travel, it is important to always exercise caution with your drinking water.

The drinking water quality at your destination depends on factors such as the local supply and distribution system as well as the enforcement and monitoring of water quality standards. Water can become contaminated through agricultural runoff, pollution, old pipes, poor storage facilities, and weather-related events such as floods.

In destinations where water-borne infections (e.g. Hepatitis A, Typhoid, Cholera, and Polio) are common, healthcare systems are more likely to be overburdened. When you take the time to learn about the health risks at your destination and proactively prevent water-borne infections, you can reduce your risk of illness as well as your health footprint.

Quick tips:

  • Pay attention to local water alerts and regulations at your destination. Standards for water quality and the enforcement of regulations may differ across municipalities.
  • If you are unsure about the tap water quality at your destination, bring your water to a rolling boil. Boiling your water is the most effective method of eliminating disease-causing bacteria, viruses, and protozoa.
  • If a heating source is not available, other disinfection methods such as filtration, ultraviolet (UV) light and chemical disinfection can be used. Need help choosing a water disinfection method that’s right for your trip? Check out Drinking water 101 and Drinking water 102 for tips and advice.
  • Bring a reusable water bottle to use throughout the day. If you are boiling your water, allow it to cool overnight.
  • Follow safe food and water practices at all times. Take care to ensure food is washed or prepared with treated water.

A note on bottled water:

Travellers and locals often turn to bottled water when the water supply isn’t safe. However, plastic water bottles are a large contributor to environmental pollution around the world. Approximately 20,000 plastic bottles are bought every second, adding up to one million every minute.

If you opt for bottled water, make sure it’s from a reliable source and check that the cap is sealed and has not been tampered with. To avoid using multiple individual bottles, buy a larger container of water and use it to fill up your reusable water bottle.

Water use and waste

In general, travellers are more likely to use greater quantities of water than local residents. The water needed to operate hotels, resorts, pools, golf courses, and support tourist consumption can be substantial as well as burdensome in areas that are water-stressed.

Tourism activities can also have an impact on the environmental health of marine areas. Many tourist attractions are located in or around fragile ecosystems such as coral reefs, coastlines, beaches, and lagoons. The health of these ecosystems can be negatively impacted by water activities such as snorkeling, boating, and cruising.

Travellers and the tourism industry can also add excess pressure to areas with improper waste management and sanitation infrastructure. Without proper waste disposal, the surrounding environment becomes polluted and the risk of water-borne illnesses increases. Many regions struggle with a lack of waste management resources. Some countries, particularly small island destinations, also have limited space to manage waste.

Quick tips:

  • Spend time researching the conditions of your destination country. Consider the sustainability of your accommodation and the impact of your planned activities on the environment and the local population.
  • Look for ways to support local production and suppliers as well as the safe and fair employment of local people.
  • Wherever possible, reduce the garbage you produce by opting for recyclable alternatives and ensure that any waste is disposed of properly.
  • Reduce your use of key resources such as gas, electricity, and water. For example, opt for energy-saving transit at your destination such as walking, biking, or public transit. Conserve electricity by always turning of lights that are not in use and take short showers instead of baths to reduce water use.

Water-related risks

In addition to our drinking water, the water we come into contact with at our destination can also have an impact on our health. Depending on your destination and the type of activities you participate in, you may be at risk of certain infections.

Quick tips:

  • Check whether your accommodation has had any recent Legionnaires’ disease outbreaks, as the bacteria that cause this lung infection can be found in indoor environments such as air conditioning systems, hot tubs, and hot water systems.
  • Avoid contact with fresh water in regions where Schistosomiasis is present, particularly in Africa and South America. The Schistosoma flatworm is hosted by fresh water snails, which are small and difficult to spot. Even brief contact with infected streams, lakes, ponds, and rivers can allow the Schistosoma flatworm enough time to burrow into the skin of an unsuspecting host.
  • Be cautious when participating in outdoor activities such as swimming, canoeing, whitewater rafting, kayaking, or camping in areas where Leptospirosis is a risk. This disease is spread to humans through contact with water, soil, mud, and food contaminated with the Leptospira bacteria. It is present worldwide, but is most commonly found in tropical and subtropical areas.
  • Injuries and infections from marine animals are a common occurrence in travellers going to island and coastal destinations. Learn how to prevent marine injuries and what to do in the event of a sting or bite.
Biomphalaria straminea snail shells
Schistosomiasis is transmitted by snails living in fresh water such as lakes, rivers, streams and ponds. These specimens of Biomphalaria straminea were collected in Pernambuco, Brazil over 30 years ago.


When we travel, our largest use of water is one that we don’t directly see. It takes a substantial amount of water to create the energy that powers the cars, buses, trains, ships, and planes we use to travel to and from our destinations. Furthermore, the emissions from transportation contribute to local air pollution and global climate change.

It takes nearly 13 gallons of water to produce one gallon of gasoline. As such, a short-distance round-trip flight from Los Angeles to San Francisco uses approximately 9,000 gallons of water or the equivalent of 2,000 dishwasher loads, while a long-haul flight from Toronto to Sydney uses enough water to run electricity in an average one-person home for five years.

Transportation is a necessary part of travel and we don’t typically have many options when it comes to planning our transit route. However, considering the environmental cost of our transportation can help us make more sustainable choices about how we travel.

Quick tips:

  • Before you book your trip, consider the fuel-efficiency and overall environmental impact of your transportation route. For example, avoiding multiple flights and layovers saves you time but it also saves you energy. Although longer flights require more energy overall, they are a better investment of energy than shorter flights, which also emit more carbon emissions per passenger mile than long-distance flights.
  • If you are driving, rent a fuel-efficient vehicle and carpool with others.
  • Wherever possible, avoid private transportation and opt for public transportation such as light-rail transit or buses. You can also walk or cycle at your destination.
  • Cruise ships are large contributors to air and water pollution, with the average ship producing approximately 21,000 gallons of sewage per day, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Before booking your cruise, look into the environmental practices of your cruise ship and choose a cruise-line with a greener reputation.

Taking the time to learn about the health risks and water at our destination can help us better protect our health and be respectful of the culture and environment of the countries we visit.

Additional resources

Learn more about World Water Day and the current water crisis: World Water Day

Calculate your water footprint: Water Footprint Calculator

Learn about environmental issues and green attractions at your destination: Gaia Passage

More information on sustainable tourism: The Sustainable Tourism Gateway & Sustainable Travel International


Photo by Tiburi, Pixabay.

Article by Claire Westmacott.