Emma Robbins remembers visiting her grandparents’ home in a rural part of the Navajo Nation as a child. There, they tended sheep far from water and power lines. Her grandparents hauled water from a trading post near the mouth of the Grand Canyon and from a patchwork of wells in the surrounding desert, loading their pickup truck with heavy tanks. Back home, the water would fill two aluminum bowls for hand-washing: one for soapy water and another filled with clearer water for rinsing.
Long before the COVID-19 pandemic, the Navajo Nation coped with a different public health problem: access to safe, running water. One in three Navajo citizens don’t have indoor plumbing. Now, with infections skyrocketing across the Southwest, families without running water aren’t able to easily wash their hands. They also increase their risk of exposure to the novel coronavirus each time they venture outside to buy limited supplies of bottled water from stores or haul it home from communal wells. That’s made it harder for the nation to stamp out the disease.
To make sure people have water to cook, clean up, and wash their hands, the Navajo Water Project works to install home water systems across the reservation. It’s meeting a need that existed before the novel coronavirus tore through the Navajo Nation and will be vital for keeping people healthy moving forward.
“These problems are being solved by Navajos for Navajos,” says Robbins, who leads the project housed within the nonprofit DigDeep, which works to improve access to clean running water in communities that have been left behind in the US.
Robbins was working as a gallery director in Chicago in 2016 when a news article about DigDeep’s work moved her to reach out to the organization. She ultimately returned to the reservation where she grew up to lead the Navajo Water Project.
Robbins remembers being excited to see her grandparents whenever they made the 30-mile drive to her parents’ home, where they sometimes showered and filled up tanks with water from the hose outside. “I never really thought about it because everybody’s grandparents or family was in that situation,” she says. As she got older, she says, “I definitely noticed a lot of things that were not fair.”
Although more urban parts of the reservation, like where Robbins’ parents raised her in Tuba City, Arizona, have running water, it’s harder to extend pipes out to more rural parts. It would take an investment of more than $700 million to get everyone on the reservation hooked up with safe tap water and basic sanitation, the Indian Health Service estimates.
Before the pandemic, Robbins and her team worked to install water tanks and plumbing in homes a lot like her grandparents’. That includes a 1,200-gallon tank buried deep enough underground to keep the water from freezing, and pipes to bring hot and cold water into the home. Since many homes without water are also off-the-grid, they also provide solar panels that can power a water pump, lights, and other devices. The project’s staff fills up the tanks monthly with water from nearby wells, saving families the trip. They’ve brought running water to 300 homes on the Navajo Nation this way since 2016.
Access to running water became more important than ever during the COVID-19 crisis. In May, the infection rate in the Navajo Nation — at roughly 2,500 per 100,000 residents — surpassed that of New York, considered an epicenter of the pandemic at the time. More people per capita were coming down with the virus on Navajo land than anywhere in the United States.
The situation became so dire that Doctors Without Borders, which usually responds to conflict zones, deployed a team to the Navajo Nation. “The lack of running water complicates things,” Jean Stowell, head of the organization’s response to COVID-19 in the US, told CBS in May. “Water sanitation and infection control go hand-in-hand,” Stowell said.
The number of novel coronavirus cases on the Navajo Nation has dropped since peaking in late May, following increased testing, daily curfews, and a requirement to wear masks. But the virus is spiking in states surrounding the Navajo Nation, prompting it to extend its lockdown. The virus has killed 377 people as of July 6th, giving the Nation a higher death rate per 100,000 people than any state in the US.
Preying disproportionately on the elderly, the virus threatens to steal more than lives. “We’re losing people who are elders and were carriers of our traditions and culture,” Robbins tells The Verge a day after the death of a medicine woman on the reservation. “Any loss of life or illness is horrible, but when it’s people who carry our everything ... it’s just very scary.”
Navajo elders carry with them much of the culture and history of the nation, which now spreads across Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico. About 180,000 people live within an area the size of West Virginia and preserve a diverse culture that includes a range of different kinds of food and colloquialisms.
The culture has persisted through devastating efforts by the US government to decimate the Navajo Nation — efforts which have deprived the nation of safe water for generations. The US forced the Navajo people from their lands in 1863 after a brutal “scorched-earth campaign” that destroyed villages, crops, livestock, and water sources. More than 8,500 Navajo people who survived were forced to walk roughly 400 miles to an internment camp at Bosque Redondo, where water was so alkaline it made people sick. The forced march and internment killed hundreds more Navajo people.
The nation eventually regained some of its land in 1868. But the onslaught on the Navajo Nation’s water didn’t end there. Cold War-era uranium mining on Navajo land contaminated many wells and springs and poisoned people. Kidney disease, cancer, and a neuropathic syndrome unique to children on the reservation — all linked to uranium — emerged. Robbins’ grandmother died from stomach cancer when Robbins was 13, which she sees as linked to the groundwater poisoned by 521 abandoned uranium mines dotting the reservation. “That was probably the most impactful part for me, when it came to water,” Robbins says. “If there was safe running water, they wouldn’t have had to go to these sources.”
It doesn’t help that water is already scarce in the West, and it’s been a source of squabbling among states for decades. The Navajo Nation, a sovereign nation, has been excluded from key negotiations like the 1922 Colorado River Compact that decided how much water individual states had rights to. The Navajo Nation has been locked in legal battle after legal battle with individual states for its share of water for decades.
Today, in places like Oljato on the Arizona-Utah border, “a single spigot on a desolate road, miles from any residence, serves 900 people,” Navajo Nation president Jonathan Nez said in a testimony to the House Natural Resources Committee last June in a hearing over a water rights settlement with Utah.
Native American tribes once again had to fight to be included in the first federal COVID-19 relief package, coming out of the ordeal with a promised $8 billion; $600 million of that was set aside for the Navajo Nation. President Nez hoped to use the funding to improve the reservation’s water infrastructure, but restrictions — like a requirement that the money be spent this year — stand in the way.
The scarcity of running water on the reservation “is not something that is only affecting Navajos during COVID. It is something that is year-round, and it’s not anything new,” Robbins says. “It’s just being amplified by COVID, and so it’s a vicious cycle.”
The pandemic put the Navajo Water Project’s home installations on pause, right when families needed running water the most. Installing new water systems in peoples’ homes while the virus is spreading quickly is just too risky for everyone involved.
To make sure people without indoor plumbing still had water in the midst of the pandemic, the project distributed 251,856 gallons of bottled water throughout May. Buying bottled water was hard for a lot of people on the reservation, Robbins points out. There are only 13 grocery stores across the vast reservation. “They made this huge trek to get there, they’ve exposed themselves, they’ve exposed others, and it’s not safe,” Robbins says. Some people made the journey only to find that stores had run out of water or were limiting how much customers could buy, according to Robbins.
Relying on bottled water isn’t a sustainable fix, either. “We’re told, wash your hands for 20 seconds with warm water and soap — if you don’t have running water that’s pretty hard to do,” Robbins says. “Imagine using bottled water. That’s a lot of bottled water for 20 seconds.”
The Navajo Water Project plans to move forward with a medium-term fix that doesn’t depend on bottled water while the reservation remains under a shelter-in-place order. It will distribute 275-gallon tanks to homes that it can refill regularly. Instead of hooking up plumbing inside homes, they’ll build hand-washing stations alongside the tanks outside.
These are temporary fixes but should make the pandemic more manageable for people waiting on a more permanent solution. Jae Begay is waiting for Robbins’ team to install a new water system in her mom’s home. She applied after seeing a post about DigDeep on Facebook a couple months ago. For now, her mom relies on water from a well about a half-mile away for things like washing hands and dishes. Drinking water comes from Begay’s sister’s home, who lives about a 30-minute drive away. Although she gets help from her daughters and grandkids, it’s getting harder as she gets older, Begay says. The family hauls water in gallon jugs and buckets. So they’re eager to get the system installed.
“She can’t wait to get it,” Begay says. “It’ll be way different … It’ll just be easy.”