How to Find Safe Drinking Water After an Urban Disaster

Water purification and knowing how to find water in an emergency is a crucial survival skill. Finding safe drinking water is key to both wilderness survival and urban survival following a disaster. Here are several solutions to your water problem, in a time of crisis.

We take water for granted — until we’re dying of thirst and kicking ourselves for not being prepared for a disaster or learning what it takes to find and procure safe drinking water in any environment.

How to Find Water Anywhere

Going into a disaster or emergency situation, one of two things will either be in your favor, or won’t be in your favor.That is this:

You’ll have supplies on hand for survival, including water, and something to carry water in.

Or you won’t have supplies on hand for survival. You have zero water handy and on top of that the sun is high in the sky and it’s hot — really hot.


The fact that you’re on this website shows an interest in survival; whether that’s wilderness survival or simply being prepared to evacuate your region should a catastrophic disaster strike and an extreme scenario present itself.

You, I, and other survivalists out there — or those just now in recent months taking an interest survival — by now know all about the essential survival supplies — items that are needed to stay alive and to defend ourselves and navigate ourselves out of harm’s way to safety.

One of the top items on our list of important survival supplies is drinking water. We need water to stay hydrated. We need water to help keep our body temperature down during physical exertion.

Plain and simple, we need water to stay alive. Water is so important that it shouldn’t be rationed, simply to help you and anyone you’re with get by. Instead, a great deal of planning and effort should be made so that you always have plenty of water to go around and new ways to replenish water supplies.

Bottled Water for an Emergency

If things go right for us when an emergency takes place, we’ll have bottled water handy, as well as secondary supplies like portable (backcountry) water filters, water purifying tablets, and of course a pot for boiling water, for the purposes of making it safe to drink (when water comes from places like ponds, fountains, streams, and even toilet basins — the top part of a residential toilet).If you have both a portable water filter and a means to boil water, boil water as your first choice to purify it — unless it’s clear that this is just a short term disaster. However, if we’re talking about a widespread disaster, use your portable water filter only when boiling water isn’t an option (for example, you’re in a hurry and that portable water filter is a time-saver). The reason is that your water filter only has so much life in it; though some water filters can filter several month’s worth of water.

Water Procurement – Finding or Creating Drinking Water

Let’s look at four scenarios going into a disaster or emergency situation and how each scenario relates to water procurement — finding or creating drinking water.

Water Scenario 1 — Everything Goes Right

In this scenario you’ve got access to your survival supplies when the disaster strikes — this could be bottled water both at home and in the trunk of your car as well as bottled water at your place of employment, ready to go should you have to flee a disaster if it strikes while you’re at work.With an evacuation route in mind — and a back-up route should the first route fail — (such as a bridge being destroyed in an earthquake or a flood washing over a major highway) you set out on foot, your plan to escape the city.

Because you had bottled water on hand, you have enough water to last you a day or two in warm weather. With that water filter device in your backpack, you have the ability to quickly purify water from lakes and streams along the way, even fountains and toilet basins if it comes down to it.

Finally, with that pot for boiling water (and a lighter and firestarter for getting a fire going), you’ve got several days worth of drinking water you can count on, and possibly several weeks’ worth.

Boiling Water

This one’s a no brainer: Scavenge materials (like a grill or pieces of metal you can use to set your pot on) and get a fire going so that you can boil water.If you have a backpack packed with essential survival supplies (think a “72 hour survival kit” or mini “bug out” bag) you can have a single burner camp stove and a couple cans of propane inside, along with a few lighters (for when that propane runs out). You’ve got 2 – 3 hours of cooking time with that single can of propane.

Considering that you only need to get water to a rolling boil for one minute (that’s the minimum amount of time needed to kill any bacteria and parasites), you can boil several liters of water over the next 2 to 4 days — perfect for purifying water you find along your evacuation route.

This plan can be counted on in areas of lakes, streams, and ponds.

Finding Water in Residential and Commercial Areas

You can also count on this plan working in residential and commercial areas. Most buildings, even damaged buildings, will have toilets and even hot water tanks, though you shouldn’t have to boil any water you find in a hot water tank (water straight from a hot water tank should be ok to drink).Boiling water is a method of water procurement you can count on in most areas of Pacific Northwest states, New England States, numerous regions across the Mid West and a few places in the South; these are areas of the country typically dotted on the map with lakes, rivers, streams, and large ponds.

Route Planning and Finding Water in Dry Areas

Should you have to travel cross-country in an area with few places for water, study a map and find the largest rivers passing through the area. Look for tributaries (small streams that feed into rivers) and consider a path that crosses numerous tributaries as a route to help you get across dry, desert areas.You increase your chances for finding water along the way, especially if your path runs parallel to a river, crossing over streams every few miles.

If you live in rural Texas or a desert area of Southern California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, and other areas of vast stretches of dry land, finding water in the wilderness is going to take a greater effort than it will in other states.

Not only is it likely to take a greater effort, but you’ll want to carry more water with you, when you do find it. That will call for not just carrying one or two bottles of water, but several bottles of water.

(Further down, in our section titled “Finding Water in the Wilderness”, we discuss ways used by survivalists and primitive cultures for finding water in dry areas like deserts. As you cross a dry, hot area there may be water nearby that you can’t see — we’ll show you how to find it.)

Water Scenario 2 — Everything Goes Wrong

In this scenario, such as being caught in a disaster while driving through rush hour traffic in a major city, you have to flee your vehicle along with thousands of other drivers and escape the city on foot.The car behind you smashes into your trunk when you hit the brakes, and now you can’t open the trunk to get to your bottled water. You take off empty handed, off the highway and down a ravine to a city street, where you then cut across and head in the direction of home, even though you know it’s 30 miles or so distant.

Survival Tip: Keep a few large bottles of water on the floor boards of your car, both in the front seat and the back, not just the trunk. If your car is damaged in a disaster, you have more chances of retrieving key survival items (include a few lighters, candles, even extra clothes and shoes). Sure your car won’t be “clean and organized”, but you’ll be more prepared for a serious disaster.

Knowing you’re going to need drinking water at some point, scour the area as you walk along, looking for empty water bottles, plastic soda bottles, or jugs that have been tossed aside. If people are out in front of their homes simply ask people if they have an extra water bottle or two you can have. If water from the tap is still flowing, help yourself to water from a nearby faucet on the side of a house — most homes have faucets and hoses attached. Even if a severe earthquake has struck, water may still flow out of faucets, even if just for a few moments.

In a major disaster though, like an earthquake, water pipes could be broken underground — other water pipes ripped out of the walls of homes and no water flowing from nearby faucets. Stop looking for water in that area and continue your evacuation. Do realize that at some point you’re likely to come across a faucet that will work. Not every city block may have been leveled in the disaster.

Water Scenario 3 — Your Home is Demolished and Faucets Not Working.

Store Bottled Water in Your Vehicles

If your house is demolished, that’s ok. Before a disaster strikes, you should store bottled water in the trunk (and on the floorboards) of each vehicle you own, just in case your home is destroyed in a disaster; if you have a garage keep at least one vehicle in the driveway. That way if a wall or ceiling collapses on any car parked inside, you’ll still have a vehicle you have access to and can even drive still (if roads are drivable).Another great place to store water: Dig a hole or two in your yard, drop in a large plastic tub with a lid, fill it with bottled water, then bury it. Garden sheds also make places for storing bottled water. Those of you with money to spend could also consider water storage tanks — I’m talking about the big ones, those that will hold several hundred gallons worth of water.

Survival Tip: Keep an axe and crow bar in the trunk of that car parked outside your home. Also, keep a heavy chain you can hook to the underside of your car, strong enough to tow another vehicle. But you’re not going to use this chain to tow, in this case. You can use the axe and crow bar to break through walls to help you get inside your home if that’s where your bottled water is (be careful when you move debris — part of a home or building can collapse on you). You can use that chain to “redneck” open doors and walls.

Ever wonder where the phrase “tear the doors off this place” came from? Back your car up to a door that won’t open, break a hole through the door using the axe, and now hook the chain (be sure to have a hook on the end) to the door somehow; connect the other end of the chain to the bottom of your car or truck (just like you’d tow someone); then jump in your car and drive forward; that chain can rip the door right off the hinges; or it can also help pull wood and framing aside that won’t budge, if a wall has collapsed.)

Drinking Water from a Hot Water Tank

The hot water tank in your home will likely have several dozen gallons of water still inside. If you can, use the drain at the bottom for drinking. In a worst case scenario though that drain may be inaccessible … with a screw driver or nail, poke a small hole in the side, near the top of the tank (not the bottom), and be ready to catch water (with a bottle or other container) as it drains out.Over the coming days, poke new holes lower on the tank, until all the water has been poured out. (When you start by poking a hole near the top of the tank, you can control the amount of water you drain from the tank. If you start by poking a hole at the bottom, it’s all going to come out.)

Drinking Water from a Toilet in an Emergency

In the top basin of your toilet (which usually has a removable lid) will be water from your tap. Depending on the age and condition of your toilet, it may not be drinkable as is. This is water you can boil and then drink. (If you see any chemical residue, such as from chemical and bleach drop-in cleaners, look for water elsewhere).

Water Pipes

To drink water that is trapped inside water pipes, turn on the faucet that is at the highest elevation in your home to release air pressure and get it into the plumbing. Having located the lowest faucet before hand, now drain water from that faucet (turn the faucet on). Have a few containers ready to catch any water that comes out.

Water Beds

Though not as popular as they once were, if you have a water bed it’s not safe to drink this water as chemicals from the plastic can contaminate it, making it toxic. Also that water may be treated with chemicals to prevent the growth of algae and bacteria. Though it’s not good for drinking, you can use this water for washing and even doing laundry.

Purifying Water with Bleach

The best method for purifying water is by boiling it, mentioned above. You don’t have to waste fuel or wood with a ten minute boil, however. Simply boiling water for 1 minute will kill parasites and bacteria. (To improve the taste, add a pinch of salt and transfer the water to a new container).If boiling isn’t an option, you can also use household bleach — but only bleach that does not have any added dies or detergents or scents. You want plain household chlorine bleach that states hypocholorite is the only active ingredient. If you have an eye dropper, use 8 drops of bleach per 1 gallon of water. If the water is cloudy, you can use up to 16 drops. Stir the water well and then let it sit for 30 minutes. At this point the water should taste and smell like chlorine.

Survival Tip: Keep a small sealed plastic bottle of bleach in your survival pack. If your portable water filter fails you and there’s no time to boil water, with bleach in your pack you’ll have a third way to purify drinking water. (For travel, pour bleach from a store-bought container into a much smaller plastic container with a screw-top lid.)

Water Scenario 4 — Finding Water Along an Evacuation Route

If the disaster has leveled the city, fires and smoke rising into the sky, you may find yourself in an evacuation. Or it may simply be a catastrophic flood or a tsunami, that has forced you to flee and several thousand other people to flee inland for higher ground.By the time you’re a few miles into the suburbs and away from the city, you should have come across something you can use as a water bottle or simply have asked a person who’s out in their yard if they have an extra water bottle or two (or empty milk jug, etc.) you can have, to help you get home.

Refilling Water Bottles

Now, where do you refill that water bottle once you’ve hiked several miles into the countryside along a highway with several thousand other people evacuating a city? If faucets, hot water tanks, and toilet basins aren’t an option, you’ll have to look to the landscape: Creeks, rivers, ponds, and lakes.Once you find water you need to make it safe to drink. In this scenario you don’t have a lighter, pot, or propane stove to boil water with. You don’t have anything on hand, just your shoes and a strong desire to get home.

Solution: As you evacuate through the outer reaches of the city, ask a homeowner for a lighter and a pot. If you’re given both you now have the tools to start a fire and boil water for safe drinking.

If the homeowner is helpful, request a candle, flashlight, map of the area, knife (even if it’s a steak knife), plastic garbage bags (you can wear a garbage bag as a poncho if it rains), and even an old backpack, and perhaps a few pieces of bread to give you some energy for the journey (a helpful homeowner is likely to give you more than just some bread though).

Depending on the distance to your house, ask if they have old clothing they can part with. Look for clothing that will fit over the top of what you’re wearing, knowing that you may have to sleep outside tonight, if you’re far from home still when night sets in — a few layers of extra clothes could go a long way to get you through the night.


Churches and Schools — Refugee Centers Offering Food and Water

One good thing about being stranded in a city following a major disaster: As you evacuate through the outer reaches of the city, quite a few neighborhoods may have come out relatively unscathed by the disaster; people there may feel safe and have no need of immediate evacuation. Local churches, elementary schools and high schools may have turned into refugee centers — they may even have supplies on hand for the emergency, such as drinking water and a hot meal.The further you are into the suburbs, the better chances you have of refugees at these schools and churches not being criminals who have fled the inner city.

We saw what happened in New Orleans following Katrina. Refugees were packed into the local stadium (the Superdome) and conditions inside weren’t that pleasant. If you’re going to stop in at a refugee center as you evacuate a major city, set your sights on a suburb. Conditions may be a bit better and safer out in the suburbs. New Orleans following Katrina became a dangerous place in many areas…

by Mark Lawrence

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *