Scrounging Water in an Urban Setting

Many cities and urban areas already contain a group of people who have had to learn to survive - these are those folks who are either forced by circumstance to live a nomadic lifestyle, or for various reasons choose to lead such a life. One of the challenges these individuals often face is gathering potable drinking water. In an era of bottled water and shrinking budgets, municipal drinking water fountains are no longer as common as were once the case. Additionally, the upkeep of many surviving units is not a priority for most cities. These fountains are often felt, correctly or not, to be a potential source of disease as well, since they are sometimes pressed into service as spittoons or even urinals.

Scrounging Water in an Urban Setting

Some seemingly obvious sources of water in urban settings need to be approached with extreme caution. These include man made standing ponds, especially those in city parks or on golf courses. Often these water sources will be heavily contaminated by the runoff from the fertilizers and pesticides used to keep the grass green and the flowers in bloom. Drainage run off from rainwater is also not the best source, as all sorts of contaminants are washed into it from city streets. One needs only to look at it under a light to see a rainbow of colors floating on top of such water, the result of oil slicks, anti freeze, and unknown chemicals.

Many buildings, including public ones, will have faucets on the outside of the structure. Even in an emergency, where the water supply may no longer be functioning, it is quite possible for a large office building to still have a great deal of water left in the pipes, all of which will be driven by gravity to flow downhill. However, even a casual observer will notice that most of these faucets do not have handles. So how does one turn them on?

Simple, you just need a key. A device variously called a silcock key or petcock key can be purchased from Home Depot, Lowe's, or many plumbing supply stores. They cost less than ten dollars in most cases. The silcock key will contain four heads that will resemble ratchet heads on a device that looks like a miniature four prong tire iron. These assorted size heads will fit the most common sizes found on outdoor faucets. With this device, one can easily turn on these random water spigots in an emergency. These devices are small enough to fit in any bug out bag, glove box, or could even be pocket carried.

It is also important to remember to carry a water container. Few people walk around with canteens on their belt. However a number of options exist that can be pocketed. These include collapsing a quart or gallon size Ziplock style bag. The freezer style bags will be thicker and more durable. Another option is to purchase a collapsible water container as sold by Nalgene, Platypus and other companies. These can be carried collapsed in one's pocket (empty) until needed. Small plastic bags sold in pharmacies for storing breast milk will also work, and are food safe. Bags sold for containing refuse will not be from food grade material and should not be used for potable water. Some authorities suggest that condoms can be used. In a pinch, they can be. However they are prone to breakage - think of them like a big water balloon - and many condoms are treated with spermicidal or lubricating solutions which can alter the taste of the water.

Another concern in an urban setting should be to heed the advice contained on many purification tablets directions. Many of these tablets are iodine based. There will be warnings on the package against using water treated with these pills by anyone who is pregnant, breast feeding, or small children. Chlorine based tablets, or even house hold bleach if used appropriately (directions are available from the American Red Cross) will provide better options in these situations. Remember also that water purification tablets will kill bacteria (and in some cases viruses, see the package directions for specifics). However they are not effective against contaminants or toxins that may be in the water.

With a bit of knowledge and preparation, finding water in an urban setting is less daunting than it seems. One just needs a way to get it, a way to carry it, and know where to find it safely. The above information can prove invaluable in solving those problems ahead of time.

-Christopher Fisher


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