“We are United States citizens but we’re not treated like that. You can hear the frustration, the tone of my voice. We once again have been forgotten by our own government,” said Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez.
The Navajo Nation is the largest Indian reservation in the United States, roughly 16 million acres, and spans across Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico. Navajo people believe that water is sacred and without it there would be no life “Tó éí ííńá át’é”: Water is life. But 1 in 3 Navajo homes don’t have clean running water.
Over 300,000 Navajo people live on the reservation but a staggering 30% don’t have indoor plumbing. Many drive for miles on dirt roads to an untreated community well where they fill up buckets and tanks to bring back to their homes to use for cooking, cleaning, and although not advised – drinking.
Contaminated Water Wells
Navajo Nation has 523 abandoned uranium mines which continue to contaminate the ground water. Uranium mining was banned in 2005, but the elements still remain and led Jani Ingram, a chemist at Northern Arizona University and a member of the Navajo Nation, to conduct water quality tests on the reservation’s wells.
Ingram and a team of researchers took samples from 294 Navajo Nation wells and found “wells in every region exceeded maximum contamination limits.” While most were marked for livestock use only and not potable, it’s believed that many people use the wells for drinking water due to lack of funds and resources to obtain clean water.
The water was contaminated not only with uranium but with arsenic and many other elements used by mining organizations. “Arsenic is a major, perhaps under-appreciated, concern,” Ingram said. The results were presented to the Navajo and more signs were posted to deter people from drinking from the contaminated wells.
Contaminated water can transmit diseases such as diarrhea, cancer, kidney disease, dysentery typhoid, and polio – killing thousands every year.
Aside from drinking, clean water is necessary to wash hands and to prevent spreading of viruses and germs. Sadly, the water shortage on the reservation fueled the recent coronavirus with Navajo Nation experiencing one of the highest death rates in the country.
“The challenges of providing access to water on the Navajo Reservation are monumental and the conditions are dire,” Nez said in a testimony about water rights settlement with Utah. “In some cases, such as in the community of Oljato on the Arizona-Utah border, a single spigot on a desolate road, miles from any residence, serves 900 people.”
U.S. Rep. Tom O’Halleran who co-sponsored the bill, Navajo Utah Water Rights Settlement Act, said, “In a time where washing hands, disinfecting surfaces, and practicing good hygiene is more critical than ever before, it is unacceptable that some on Navajo struggle to access this resource so many of us take for granted.”
Access to clean water is a basic human right and not a luxury.
The Indian Health Service estimates it will cost more than $700 million to provide water and sanitation to all homes in Navajo Nation.
People Stepping Up To Help
The water crisis at the reservation has been a long-standing issue, but people from around the world are stepping up to help provide the indigenous people with clean running water.
DigDeep, provides hot and cold running water to homes on the reservation, state, “Navajo are 67 times more likely than other Americans to live without running water or a toilet. That’s an injustice.”
The organization has installed indoor plumbing and sanitation to over 250 families since they started in 2014. Since most homes also lack electricity, the water is ran off solar electricity.
The federal government has failed the Navajo people countless times so they are relying on each other and generous organizations to provide clean running water.
Emma Robbins, lead on the Navajo Water Project, said, “These problems are being solved by Navajos for Navajos.”
The project made sure the Navajo people weren’t forgotten during the pandemic by delivering bottled water and 275-gallon water tanks to homes without indoor plumbing.
Join us in helping save lives by providing filtered water bottles, pitchers, and water testers to residents of Navajo Nation. Together we change the world.
Andrea Powell is an animal enthusiast that resides in West Michigan. When not writing, she is exploring the great outdoors with her dogs and horses.