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Potable water is water which is fit for consumption by humans and other animals. It is also called drinking water, in a reference to its intended use. Water may be naturally potable, as is the case with pristine springs, or it may need to be treated in order to be safe. In either instance, the safety of water is assessed with tests which look for potentially harmful contaminants.
The issue of access to potable water is very important. In developed countries, people may not put a great deal of thought into the source of their water. In many First World nations, citizens can turn on a tap for fresh, potable water which may also be enriched with substances for health. In developing countries, however, and especially in Africa, a large proportion of the population does not have access to safe water.
Water which is not safe to drink can carry diseases and heavy metals. People who consume this water will become ill, and there is a risk of death. Unfortunately, even in areas where the water is known to be unsafe, people may drink it anyway, out of desperation. The lack of potable water is often accompanied by other lapses in sanitation, such as open sewers and limited garbage collection. Many of these public health issues impact the poor more than anyone else.
Water which is contaminated can be treated to turn it into potable water. One of the easiest ways to treat water is boiling. Boiling water may not remove heavy contaminants, but it can neutralize most bacteria and viruses which may be present. Water can also be treated with chemicals such as bleach, which sometimes come in the form of tablets for field and camping use. In addition, water can be pumped through a filter to remove particulates.
Because water quality is important, many nations strive to protect the safety of their water and to increase access to potable water. Some countries have laws governing water safety, with severe penalties for polluters. These nations typically test water on a regular basis for contaminants, making the results of this testing available to citizens by request. In developing nations, many non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are working to improve water quality conditions, along with other basic sanitation.
Even in first world countries, after a major disaster, access to potable water may be limited. People in this situation can look for potable water in hot water heaters and toilet tanks, and they should save this water for drinking. For bathing and cleaning, non-potable water can often be used. Keeping purification tablets on hand in an emergency preparedness kit is also an excellent idea. After major storms and hurricanes, citizens should wait to be assured that their water is potable, in case sewage pipes have ruptured and contaminated the water supply.