Is Drinking Spring Water Safe?

Wednesday, June 19th, 2024

In a word? No.

Most people who read our website don’t know much about water-related diseases like cholera, dysentery, and typhoid. But there’s a reason for that. In the Western world, tap water is generally safe, so we don’t have to worry about diseases like that in our everyday lives anymore. 

But this lack of worry can also translate to a lack of vigilance when it comes to the water we drink and being aware of what makes drinking untreated water dangerous. 

In recent years, some people have even considered it trendy to drink what they call “raw water” — water that hasn’t been treated. Health officials warn that doing so may cause unintended health consequences.

Microbiologically contaminated drinking water can transmit diseases such as diarrhea, cholera, dysentery, typhoid, and polio and is estimated to cause approximately 505,000 diarrhoeal deaths each year.


The problem with “raw” water and spring water is that you can’t tell whether it’s contaminated.

Terms like “natural spring water” make bottled water sound more appealing. However, while processed foods are generally considered unhealthy, the opposite is true when it comes to your water: treated water is undeniably better than “raw.”

In the United States, tap water undergoes a rigorous process that removes dirt, germs, and disease-causing pathogens. But to the naked eye, treated water looks exactly the same as water from a natural spring.

What makes drinking untreated water dangerous?

Spring water is often filled with contaminants and pollutants that trickle down from upstream. These can include any number of undesirable substances that can leech into water: farm chemicals like pesticides, human and animal waste, and even road salt. Spring water is open to animals, who don’t have the same stringent water hygiene standards that humans do, even defecating in the water as they drink it.

Cows drink from a water source shared with humans in Uganda.

Springs — and any open water source — can be contaminated with bacteria (e.g., E. coli, Salmonella), viruses (e.g., Norovirus, Hepatitis A), and protozoa (e.g., Giardia, Cryptosporidium). 

Any of these harmful microorganisms can make people seriously ill or even kill them. As we say a lot at The Water Project, every sip of dirty water is a risk.

Is this true for everyone?

Not everyone around the world has safe water piped directly to them like we do in the United States. While you and I can easily swear never to drink untreated water again, many others, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, lack alternatives.

1.8 billion people worldwide must leave their homes to find water for their families every day. Of that number, 115 million drink surface water, meaning water in open sources like springs, rivers, ponds, or scoop holes.

As Alice Maithya from Southeast Kenya will tell you, drinking water from an open water source has only hurt her family’s health.

Alice Maithya from Kalamba Community in Kenya collects dirty water from a scoop hole in Southeast Kenya.

“Water from the scoop hole is contaminated, and me and my children often contract typhoid, amoeba, and various stomach upsets,” Alice said. “One of my grandchildren has not gone to school for a couple of days now because of stomach upsets, and I can only get local herbs because taking her to a dispensary is expensive, and I did not reap much from the last harvest.”

How does The Water Project make springs in sub-Saharan Africa safe?

Unless a spring’s eye (where the water emerges from deeper levels of the ground) is protected via a well-built structure, its water may be unsafe for humans. Spring water can only be of good quality microbiologically if the spring’s source is well-protected from sources of contamination. 

One of The Water Project’s protected springs in Western Kenya.

When we build a protected spring, we shelter the eye of the spring from outside contaminants by building a fence and digging a drainage channel about ten meters uphill from the eye of the spring. If there are any sources of contamination on the ground uphill from the spring (e.g animal waste, or a farm using pesticides), water can wash those contaminants downhill. The drainage channel, or diversion channel, is like a moat that diverts any surface water running down the hill away from the spring. The fence also ensures that no humans or animals can access and cause contamination in the area that feeds directly into the spring water.

Then, we force the water through layers of natural filters like clay, gravel, stone, and soil before it finally emerges through a discharge pipe. 

Even then, when The Water Projects protects springs, we always install a chlorine dispenser alongside it. Each dispenser allows a single dose of chlorine through each use. By the time a community member walks home with their water, it will be safe to drink. These dispensers help community members know their water is safe without having to gather firewood, build a fire, and wait for the water to reach a boil each time they or their family members want to take a drink.

If you’d like to join us in providing safe, reliable drinking water to communities, schools, and health centers in Kenya, Sierra Leone, and Uganda, please donate today. 

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Jamie Heminway

Jamie is a storyteller by nature. In joining the Water Project, she’s finally found a workplace where that pesky bleeding heart of hers can be put to use (and, less importantly, that BA in English Language & Literature from New England College).