Science

You Do Not Have to Stock Up on Water to Prepare for the Coronavirus

A man in a grocery store takes a case of water bottles from the top of a stack and looks at his shopping cart, which also has a case of water.
A man buys water, food, and toilet paper in Los Angeles on Saturday.
Mark Ralston/Getty Images

To brace for the coronavirus, Americans are doing what we do best: hoarding. Hand sanitizer is in short supply; big-box stores are filled with panicked shoppers. Advice on whether you need to stock up on supplies is very mixed: Experts range from recommending that you just keep washing your hands and maybe order some extra medication to suggesting you have a two-week supply of food on hand. The necessity of all of this depends on how isolated you are (if you got sick or needed to care for sick kids, could someone else grab food for you?), and how risky it is for you to go out if an outbreak starts spreading in your community (healthy young people, for example, do not need to worry).

But there is one necessity you almost certainly can skip: water. Does anyone really need to stockpile water for the coronavirus? Probably not. Even if you are committed to self-isolating, water comes into your house much more easily than food does (via a tap!). In a conversation about stockpiling, fellow science writer (and, like all of us now, coronavirus reporter) Adam Rogers summed up the case against hoarding bottled water in a way that I find very calming and have now been repeating to other people: “Water stayed on in Wuhan”—at the very chaotic center of the coronavirus spread—”it’d stay on here.”

There are some far-fetched scenarios that would cause it to stop because of a pandemic, since the thing that ultimately makes water utilities run is people, as Mary Van Beusekom makes clear in a 2006 article published by the University of Minnesota. If many (many, many, many) people can’t go into work, the water supply might become vulnerable. But it would take a lot: One utility manager estimated to Van Beusekom that he only needs about 10 percent of his thousand employees to cover the absolute minimum repair and tech support tasks to keep the taps running for his more than 1 million customers. The water utilities in turn rely on other companies—also made up of people—to supply things like disinfectants to keep the water clean. Smaller utility companies that serve little communities are more vulnerable to a workforce shortage, notes Van Beusekom; a 10 percent skeleton crew for a tiny team could mean one or two overworked souls. Still, coronavirus would have to escalate very, very dramatically for water to shut down from lack of employees, and there is absolutely no indication it will do so.

You might be stockpiling water right now for another reason—you want to have it on hand for other natural disasters, like earthquakes and winter storms, which can mess with the actual mechanics of water getting to you in your home. The coronavirus is, understandably, making some of us take stock of how our emergency plans are doing in general. Just be mindful that stores might be more crowded right now in general, and delivery folks strung a little thinner. Be kind and tip well.