We generalize a recently proposed model for cholera epidemics that accounts for local communities of susceptibles and infectives in a spatially explicit arrangement of nodes linked by networks having different topologies. The vehicle of infection (Vibrio cholerae) is transported through the network links that are thought of as hydrological connections among susceptible communities. The mathematical tools used are borrowed from general schemes of reactive transport on river networks acting as the environmental matrix for the circulation and mixing of waterborne pathogens. Using the diffusion approximation, we analytically derive the speed of propagation for travelling fronts of epidemics on regular lattices (either one-dimensional or two-dimensional) endowed with uniform population density. Power laws are found that relate the propagation speed to the diffusion coefficient and the basic reproduction number. We numerically obtain the related, slower speed of epidemic spreading for more complex, yet realistic river structures such as Peano networks and optimal channel networks. The analysis of the limit case of uniformly distributed population sizes proves instrumental in establishing the overall conditions for the relevance of spatially explicit models. To that extent, the ratio between spreading and disease outbreak time scales proves the crucial parameter. The relevance of our results lies in the major differences potentially arising between the predictions of spatially explicit models and traditional compartmental models of the susceptible-infected-recovered (SIR)-like type. Our results suggest that in many cases of real-life epidemiological interest, time scales of disease dynamics may trigger outbreaks that significantly depart from the predictions of compartmental models.