Safe Water vs. Clean Water: What’s the Difference?

Because clean water isn’t always safe, and safe water isn’t always clean.

Imagine someone put two glasses of water in front of you. One is clear; odorless and inviting. The other is a little cloudy. You can see a few particles in it, and it has a slight aroma of sulfur. Which would you choose to drink?

You would, no doubt, pick the first one. It’s clean, and the other one is not.

However, what if you learned that the clear water actually contained non-visible impurities like bacteria, nitrates, or dangerous levels of arsenic or fluoride? Counterintuitively, the murky water in this situation is actually safer to consume. This is why the distinction between safe water and clean water is so vital because clear or clean water is not always safe to drink. The reverse is also true, that safe water does not always actually look clear and uncontaminated.

Here are four reasons why the difference is important:

1. “Clean water” isn’t always safe

Clean water, as far as what is visible to the naked eye, is not a good enough standard to determine what will protect and empower a community. This is why at Lifewater we require that every one of our water points produce water that is truly safe for everyone to drink.

“Ultimately, safe water is our gold standard,” said Lissie Babb, Lifewater’s Senior Director of Program Quality. “If we want diarrhea rates to decrease, water needs to be safe.”

2. Clean water is secondary

But we aim for cleanliness too, because everyone deserves to drink water that is appealing to the senses. 

“In the countries where we work, and in the nonprofits and NGO’s there, their goal is to have safe and clean water,” said Sarah Young, one of Lifewater’s Senior Engineering Advisors. “Having clear, non-cloudy water is one of our standards for safe water.”

Safety first, then cleanliness.

“It’s not that clean is wrong, but it shouldn’t only be clean,” said Lissie.

3. Safe water is the most dignifying option

Communities rely on new water points for cooking, cleaning, livestock care, and farming. Many people whose stories we tell are accustomed to cloudy water. Partnering with them to provide a water source that provides safe and clear water gives communities even more reason to feel confident about their future. 

This sometimes means spending extra time and resources to ensure that our water points are flowing with clean, safe water. We are not finished with a new water point until the water runs clear and passes our rigorous safety testing for turbidity, bacteria, and other contaminants. 

If water testing reveals that water is carrying anything harmful, we pause and make adjustments like selecting a different water source or eliminating the sources of the contamination.

4. Safe water prioritizes sustainable relationships

Lissie Babb explained that this attention to detail is part of how Lifewater creates strong relationships and ensures that new water points will provide safe water for communities.

“It shows that we care about health and not just the appearance of the water,” said Lissie. “We’re holding ourselves to a higher standard than just clean water. Sometimes we have to spend more money, but we’re committed to that process.”

This distinction between actually safe and merely clean water can make the difference between life or death for a child under five, between improved health or expensive medical payments for a young family, between surviving and thriving for a community. 

Safe water for all, that’s our goal.

Choose a Village. Change a Life.