Australia is a land criss-crossed by hundreds of rivers and creeks, stretching thousands of kilometres across the face of the country, and providing Aussies with idyllic camping spots to wile away the weekend.
If you’ve found yourself in such a spot for the weekend, and have guzzled the final drop of your bottled water supply, you might be looking longingly at the bubbling creek a few feet away, and asking “is river water safe to drink?” In this article, we’ll explain the risks involved in drinking water from an Australian river or creek.
Can I drink river or creek water?
You can, but you shouldn’t. River or creek water can contain bacteria, viruses, and parasites such as Cryptosporidium, Giardia, and Shigella. These can lead to illnesses such as gastroenteritis, diarrhoea, and symptoms such as fever, bloating, nausea, fatigue, and coughing. Water is usually contaminated by human and animal faeces, but can also be spoiled by farms, septic tanks, and more1. If you’d rather not spend the next few days writhing in pain, it’s best to avoid drinking river water—the two hour drive to the nearest store is worth it.
Of course, if you’ve packed a gas stove for your camping trip, boiling river water will kill any bacteria, viruses, and parasites floating around in it. But it won’t remove harmful chemicals such as arsenic or lead, which can be deadly when drunk in excessive amounts.
If you drink contaminated water, it’ll probably be a few days before you feel any effects. This makes it more difficult to make the connection between your illness and the filthy creek water that you drank a few days prior, putting you at risk of repeating the same mistake. Many people recover from drinking contaminated water, but if you have a compromised immune system, whether through a chronic disease, serious allergies, an autoimmune disease, taking immunosuppressant drugs, or completing chemotherapy, you should avoid drinking river or creek water unless you have no other choice2.
How to check if a water source is safe
You can never really know if a water source is safe, but there are some guidelines to follow if you’re in a tight spot and desperately need a drink.
First, check how the water looks after you’ve captured some in a bottle. Is it clear, free of debris, with a scum-free surface? Next, give the water a sniff to check whether it smells like water, and not something that smells like rotten eggs, or an unwashed festival toilet. If the water passes these tests, it might be safe to drink. But we still don’t recommend it.
We also recommend against drinking river water that is downstream for camping areas, mines, and agricultural areas, as these can contain human and industrial waste, which can make you incredibly sick.
How to reduce your risk of a water-related illness
If you’re planning on camping for a few days, make sure you take plenty of drinking water. It’s also a good idea to pack a gas stove, for boiling water when you need to.
Other ways to purify river water include chlorine and iodine tablets, UV lights, and portable micro-filters and purifiers (available in camping stores).