We are all used to washing our hands by now, whenever we return to our homes. But think about those who do not have enough water to do that whenever they wish.
“It’s really hard for families who don’t have access to water or wastewater facilities. They tell you to wash your hands for 20 seconds, but some people can’t even do that” said Jason John, Director of the Navajo Nation Department of Water Resources.
As the coronavirus pandemic sweeps across the United States, few places are harder hit than Navajo land. Its 24,700 square miles are sparsely populated, with only 175,000 citizens living in an area the size of West Virginia. Yet as of late last week it had confirmed more than 1,000 cases of COVID-19. As a percentage of the population, the nation’s infection rate is nearly 10 times that of Arizona’s.
Water crisis deepens
Just as importantly, many of those residents lack running water. While the virus has attuned the whole country to the idea of “wash your hands for 20 seconds,” at least 15% of the homes have no running water at all, according to the official tribal tally. “When one gets it,” John said, “it goes through the whole household pretty rapidly.”
The scarcity has built a culture of water ingenuity, a thrifty attitude towards water that is echoed in homes across tribal land – but one that may now run counter to the idea of constant washing to tamp down the virus.
“We’ve become kind of water experts,” Peshlakai said. “Having both drinking and household cleaning water as well as showering and bathing water. Also, we have water for the plants and the animals, and then gray water for anything else that we need like agricultural use.” The families maintain their supply in different barrels. Her own home lacks the basic essential services. Peshlakai and her daughter Jamie Lynn Butler are now bathing and cooking at her mom’s house two miles away.
New technology is helping architects and designers find new and innovative ways to get water to these houses in an economical and efficient way. Thus, off-grid living is becoming more comfortable and therefore a more viable option for many people.
According to a Johns Hopkins Center for American Indian Health report, 12% of homes throughout Indian Country lack any water – including rainwater, compared with 0.6% of all American homes.
Peshlakai sees a remarkable disparity, given that tribal lands supplied the coal for the power plant that drove water through the Central Arizona Project, as well as the construction of Lake Powell and other big federal projects.
“Our natural resources were the seeds and the building blocks of what people think of as ‘high society’ in Phoenix,” she said. “Phoenix is one of the most beautiful cities in the country.” All, she said, built from the natural resources found on tribal lands.
Unsettled water claims
Nakai, a citizen of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, said that though the U.S. Supreme Court established water rights for tribes in 1903, settlers and other interests constructed water infrastructure much earlier in the West. “That complicates tribes’ ability to quantify how much are they are entitled to,” she said.
Sarah Porter is the director of the Kyl Center for Water Policy at the Morrison Institute. She points to ongoing legal claims over the Little Colorado River watershed, which crosses Navajo land. With more than 9,000 claims from 4,200 parties, the settlement is still not a done deal after 42 years. In fact, the case is now being heard in Maricopa County Superior Court.
The last attempt to settle the nation’s water rights was in 2012, when former Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl and the late Sen. John McCain developed a settlement that included funding to build water infrastructure. However, Porter said, despite tribal leaders believing their constituents would approve of the settlement, a last-minute grassroots pushback killed the deal.
Even if rights are settled, Nakai said, that doesn’t mean water starts running. Next comes the enormous cost of planning and building infrastructure. Think about pumps, pipelines, and distributions systems that have never existed in many places.
Nakai said that constituents often don’t understand how long that takes. “The population who wants these things to occur gets frustrated about the time it’s taking,” she said. Changes in administrations also can complicate the process. “Every time your political structure shifts, you start over, you know, new president, new priorities.”
Lack of basic necessities
In many households, the only source of water is to haul it in from a communal supply point.
Emma Robbins, director of the Navajo Nation Water Project for the nonprofit DigDeep, is from Tuba City. “Cities like L.A. or Phoenix, everyone has running water,” Robbins said. “We should be having the same amenities and the same luxuries that everybody else who’s living in current-day United States or whatever other part of the Americas has.”
DigDeep helps build community supply projects in places like tribal land and Appalachia.
“Most of us cut our teeth in international sources and sanitation work,” said DigDeep founder George McGraw. “We had really no idea that this problem existed in our own country.”
“We’re working to get families hot and cold running water in their homes through off-grid systems or through assisting with bill payments,” Robbins said. “We are also looking at installing solar elements for families who don’t have electricity.”
Living off-grid is one solution that many people are turning to. It allows them to live self-sufficiently. For instance, wells can be a good option as they are a solid and clean water supply. Although they can be expensive to dig, they can give occupants access whenever it is needed and don’t rely on rainfall.
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