A series of experiments is reported to identify and characterize the inactivation process in operation when drinking water, heavily contaminated with a Kenyan isolate of Escherichia coli, is stored in transparent plastic bottles that are then exposed to sunlight. The roles of optical and thermal inactivation mechanisms are studied in detail by simulating conditions of optical irradiance, water turbidity and temperature, which were recorded during a series of solar disinfection measurements carried out in the Kenyan Rift Valley. Optical inactivation effects are observed even in highly turbid water (200 ntu) and at low irradiances of only 10 mW cm-2. Thermal inactivation is found to be important only at water temperatures above 45 degrees C, at which point strong synergy between optical and thermal inactivation processes is observed. The results confirm that, where strong sunshine is available, solar disinfection of drinking water is an effective, low cost method for improving water quality and may be of particular use to refugee camps in disaster areas. Strategies for improving bacterial inactivation are discussed.