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Coronavirus Outbreak Halts Effort To Bring Running Water To Navajo Homes

Dig Deep

Nearly a third of residents on the Navajo Nation don’t have running water in their homes. A group called the Navajo Water Project has installed 300 indoor plumbing systems for families on the reservation in the last six years. But since the coronavirus outbreak began their work has come to a halt, and the continued lack of water for many tribal members has only intensified the impacts of the pandemic. KNAU’s Ryan Heinsius spoke with the project’s director Emma Robbins.

Ryan Heinsius: How has the coronavirus crisis complicated the already-existing challenge of access to water on the Navajo Nation?

Emma Robbins: Out of the 173,000 Navajos who live on the reservation about 30% don’t have access to indoor plumbing or running water. And that is obviously a huge issue when you have a pandemic like this because when you don’t have running water in your home you’re not able to wash your hands with warm water for 20 seconds. In addition to that, when you don’t have drinking water you have to haul your own water and that looks like going to grocery stores, whether those are on the reservation or going to border towns, there are restrictions on how many things you can buy and that includes water. A lot of times when families leave their homes they’re exposing themselves almost in vain, right, because they get there, they can’t buy the amount of water that they need or else grocery stores are totally empty, and it’s a huge problem because you’re not able to do the two things that we hear all the time: wash your hands and stay at home.

Credit Navajo Water Project/Dig Deep
A DigDeep/Navajo Water Project staff member fills the water tank of a newly installed system to a home on the Navajo Nation.

RH: Are there other social or health problems that can accompany a lack of running water?

ER: There are a lot of mental health issues associated with it. Like depression, when you aren’t able to have the same things that other people in this country do, basic luxuries like having running water. It really wears you down. Sometimes I think about some of the children that we work with or install systems in their homes, and how they’re going to school with other kids who might have been able to take a shower that morning and they haven’t been able to for a couple days, and that can really wear down on somebody mentally. A lot of times what we see is people who have diseases like diabetes when there is not water around they’ll turn to sugary beverages because that’s a lot more accessible.

Credit Navajo Water Project/Dig Deep
Young Ms. Navajo Baca Chapter, Cavileen Johnson

RH: What population on the Navajo Nation has the highest amount of need for running water and are many of these same people especially vulnerable to COVID-19?

ER: It’s definitely spread out across the Navajo Nation. Obviously in more rural areas there are people without running water or electricity. Larger towns – I myself and from Tuba City, so we have really great infrastructure in our town but you get to the outskirts and that’s not so common. So, it’s not just concentrated in one area, it’s all over. People who live closer to Superfund sites or areas where there’s a lot of arsenic, that is not safe especially if they don’t have running water because sometimes families in a pinch, or they might have been used to this for years, will go to livestock wells or troughs that might have that contamination. Those are pretty vulnerable populations because, as we know, uranium makes you sick. Also, a lot of times people who are living further out in more rural areas are generally elders and they’re definitely vulnerable.  

RH: Lack of running water is something that’s so often associated with the developing world. Why in the year 2020 is this still a problem in the U.S.?

ER: The U.S. does not define it as a health crisis. It’s not just an issue on Native Nations or on the Navajo Nation, it’s throughout the United States. There are approximately 2 million Americans who do not have running water. It’s time that we start saying, hey this is a huge crisis because then there will be more priority put on it. A lot of the communities that are experiencing water poverty are brown and black lower-income families and so, like many things, and even covid now, we’re experiencing higher rates because I personally think a lot of times it’s easier to push aside these communities and say, well, let’s just focus on certain areas. A lot of people who I talk to who are not American are in complete disbelief, like I can’t believe the U.S. has that going on, and why wouldn’t you just invest in that or hold people accountable. It’s obviously not that easy to just go up to a politician and say, hey make sure we have water, but I think people will start taking it seriously when define it as a crisis.

Ryan Heinsius joined the KNAU newsroom as executive producer in 2013 and was named news director and managing editor in 2024. As a reporter, he has covered a broad range of stories from local, state and tribal politics to education, economy, energy and public lands issues, and frequently interviews internationally known and regional musicians. Ryan is an Edward R. Murrow Award winner and a Public Media Journalists Association Award winner, and a frequent contributor to NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and national newscast.
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