Can’t Drink the Water? Just Drink Beer

Beer is being used to replace contaminated water in some places.

If the water flowing from your tap were contaminated, how would you quench your thirst? Rather than run the risk of contracting a waterborne disease, some residents of Mpumalanga province in South Africa have turned to beer to stay hydrated.

Water quality is low in Mpumalanga province; some of the worst in South Africa. The province is mostly agricultural, but extensive mining and some other industry are also present. Runoff from farms puts excessive nitrates into the water, which must be removed before people can drink it. Pesticides and herbicides also wash into the rivers.

83% of the coal mined in South Africa comes from Mpumalanga and gold and other minerals are also found there. Chemicals such as arsenic and mercury are used to separate precious metals from surrounding rocks and can get into surface waters. All these together make it expensive to treat contaminated water for the local population to drink.

Recent outbreaks of waterborne illnesses indicate that either the water is not being properly purified or the pipes used to carry the clean water to homes and businesses are leaking. Some residents have decided not to risk waterborne diseases and have turned instead to beer for their daily hydration needs.

Beer or Contaminated Water?

Beer is up to 97% water by volume. Water must be cleaned before brewing, both to produce a consistent product and to enable the brewers yeast to do its job, providing the beer drinkers with a more reliable source of clean water than the municipal water. While relying on alcoholic beverages to replace water is not recommended, the practice is not without historical precedent. Beer, wine, and other fermented beverages were used in places where local springs were contaminated, such as in large European cities in the middle ages.

Interestingly, Mpumalanga province is also famous for the Kruger National Park and is a popular tourist destination. Water for the tourists seems to be of reasonable quality, yet the water available for residents is some of the poorest in South Africa.

However, many South Africans answered a recent survey saying they felt their water quality had declined over several years. Mpumalanga province might be the worst in water quality, but it seems the rest of South Africa is not far behind.

Beer photo via Shutterstock

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