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New Microgrant Program Aims To Support Community Water Access Projects On Navajo Nation


Nearly a third of the people on the Navajo Nation lack running water – it’s a reality that’s complicated daily life during the COVID-19 pandemic. Tribal members, many of them women, have taken it upon themselves to expand access to drinking water, sanitation and hygiene. Now, a new microgrant program seeks to support those grassroots efforts. The Water Is Life Fund is a partnership between the Kohler plumbing company and the nonprofit Dig Deep’s Navajo Water Project and will distribute grants ranging from $5,000 to $20,000 to local projects. Katie Janss is the research manager for the Navajo Water Project and spoke with KNAU’s Ryan Heinsius.

Applications for the Water Is Life Fund are being accepted through April 30. 

Ryan Heinsius: What do you hope to achieve with this project?

Katie Janss: I’m very much hoping to fund projects that are already being done on the Navajo Nation and beyond, of course, but this year we’re focusing mainly on the Navajo Nation. In the last year especially with the COVID pandemic, we heard a lot of stories about people who were stepping up and helping their communities just delivering water out of the back of their trucks or coming up with a new system that might help people get water in a place where, you know, 30% of people don’t have running water or flush toilets in their homes. So I’m just really excited and really grateful to the Kohler company for providing the assistance to get microgrants out to folks who are already doing this work.

Credit DigDeep
Workers including Emma Robbins (right) with the nonprofit Dig Deep's Navajo Water Project make deliveries to community members on the Navajo Nation.

RH: And why go with a microgrant model? How might this address the problem of water access in ways that other methods may not have in the past?

KJ: It’s helpful because a lot of folks are kind of just doing on-the-ground work like getting their neighbors water. And we want to make it very easy for people to get this funding as well because we’re anticipating folks who may have not applied for a formal grant before. Applying for a big, huge sum of money from a foundation can be a very arduous and complicated process, and so we wanted to make this really accessible to folks who might not have done that before.

RH: How might the COVID-19 pandemic have made water access on Navajo a more urgent problem?

KJ: That is the big question always this year. People have been saying all year you need to wash your hands for 20 seconds. That’s one of the ways to kill the coronavirus from your hands. But when you don’t have running water it’s not easy to wash your hands, it’s an involved process – you need to go haul water, you need to make sure you have soap, you have to make sure that there is some way to drain the water, like you drain gray water. Water access on the Navajo Nation, or lack thereof, has been a huge issue for decades, but this pandemic just really brought to light how much of an issue it is. And increasing water access really helps these communities build resiliency in the future for future health crises.

RH: The first round of funding prioritizes women applicants. Why is this an important element?

KJ: It’s because women are – they’re kind of the water protectors, especially on the Navajo Nation. And you know, taking care of your kids is really important and making sure that your kids are clean. And also I think that a lot of times I think women aren’t necessarily prioritized for grants or for water access projects especially. So that was really important for us to make sure that we were prioritizing women.

RH: In a broader sense, maybe even outside of the pandemic, how does a lack of running water deepen inequality for tribal communities and other communities of color.

KJ: There is the public health aspect of it. If you don’t have running water it’s harder to stay clean, it’s harder to do laundry, it’s harder to clean your kids, wash your hands. And that makes you more susceptible to things like a pandemic or like any other public health crisis or just common cold. But there’s also just the psychological element of not having running water especially in the United States where 99.5% of Americans have running water. Even on the Navajo Nation, 30% of people don’t have running water but that means a lot of people do have running water. And I know that a lot of kids, in particular, will go to school and not want to talk about the fact that they don’t have running water because they feel like it makes them different in some way. Obviously the public health aspect is critical, very important, but it’s also really important for people’s mental health and wellbeing to feel really human.

Ryan joined KNAU's newsroom as executive producer in 2013. He covers 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 frequent contributor to NPR.
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