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Clean, Clear, or Safe Water: How Can You Tell?

Hold up a bottle of clear water to a light, and ask those around you, “Is this water safe to drink?”

They will likely say, “Yes.”

Conswello Chavez, a mother of three in La Concordia, Mexico, thought the same, but then her oldest son became sick a few years ago. She began suspecting that their “clean” water wasn’t actually safe to drink. She used to purchase supposedly purified bottled water from a local vendor. “I decided to check the bottle of water and realized that it had a bad smell,” she said.

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Conswello outside of her store with her mother and son

Two weeks later, Conswello’s second son began suffering from the same symptoms. Again, she traced the illness back to a foul-smelling bottle of water. After spending their hard-earned money seeing a doctor and buying medicine for the boys, she called the manager of the bottled water supplier to let him know that her sons had fallen ill from the supposedly “clean” water.

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Conswello’s son benefiting from access to safe water

“The only thing he did was apologize to me for the inconvenience,” Conswello said. He offered no assurances that he would address the issue with the water supply.

Then, three years ago, Water Mission began working near La Concordia, providing safe water and healthy hygiene training to its residents.

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Implementing WASH best practices in La Concordia, Mexico

As with all our community-based projects, Water Mission first collaborated with local leaders to develop strategies for the project’s operational and financial success. Community members formed a safe water committee to manage the water treatment system, while we trained other residents on how to teach their neighbors about safe water, sanitation, and hygiene behaviors, such as handwashing. Conswello eagerly attended these educational programs and left empowered by the new knowledge.

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Conswello transports safe water to her store

“I trust Water Mission because they taught us how to clean our hands and about how bacteria work,” she said. “They demonstrated through a glass of water that water can be clear but contaminated. And that made us feel comfortable about drinking Water Mission’s water. You can taste the disinfectant, so my children can identify when the water is safe.”

Andrew Armstrong, PE, who oversees Water Mission’s safe water projects, said, “Often times, people in rural communities and disaster areas receive mixed messages from government authorities and community leaders.” He pointed out that Water Mission staff members in Indonesia often have to correct commonly held beliefs about water. Throughout the country, there is a desire to drink safe water but a lack of understanding of what constitutes “safe.”

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Access to safe water is transforming lives in La Concordia, Mexico

As Conswello discovered, colorless, odorless, and tasteless “safe-looking” water can be deceiving. Even sparkling water or clear bottled water can harbor invisible and dangerous bacteria. Conswello now knows to ask the right questions to determine whether water is safe or unsafe to drink:

  • Is the water source protected from contamination?
  • Is it treated consistently with disinfectant?
  • Is it regularly monitored and tested for quality?

These steps can often be overlooked in the process of providing drinking water, which is one reason why Water Mission is committed to extensive treatment and testing practices in each of our safe water projects. These tests are conducted by local operators, who are appointed by the safe water committee and trained by Water Mission on system usage and maintenance.

Selling safe water from Conswello’s storefront

Once Conswello understood the principles of safe water, she began looking for ways to invest in the health of her family and community. She coordinated with the local operator of Water Mission’s system to begin selling bottled water in her small store — and at a significantly lower price than the water she used to buy.

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Safe water creates hope and opportunity for people in La Concordia, Mexico

“I can say confidently that the water I sell is healthy and safe for all,” she said. No one in her family has contracted a waterborne illness since they began drinking water from Water Mission’s system. She spends fewer resources on hospital visits and medicine, and her boys spend less time recovering from illness and more time playing soccer. In La Concordia, safe water fosters healthy communities, healthy families, and healthy bodies — now that’s worth pausing for and asking: Is the water clear, clean, or safe?

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