Doing Justice to Our Closest Neighbors: Water Poverty in the United States

On Tuesdays and Thursdays YOUR VOICE features political commentary from students and young professionals.

Justice demands that Americans act to defend everybody’s right to water. 

Water is one of earth’s most precious resources. Life exists because of it and cities are built next to it. Wars are even fought over it. Although the UN recognized the right to safe and clean drinking water in 2010 in Resolution 64/292, people all over the world still live without adequate access to it. In 2008 Pope Benedict said that “the use of water — which is seen as a universal and inalienable right — is related to the growing and urgent needs of those living in poverty”.

However, water poverty is not just a problem globally; in fact, water poverty exists much closer to home. 40 percent of Navajo Indians don’t have running water or a toilet in their homes, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. For non-Native Americans, that number is just 0.6 percent. 

Hundreds-of-thousands of Americans are living without access to water. Many of them are forced to travel by foot for miles to collect water, sometimes in the middle of winter. Over the past few months I have been the American Projects Fellow with DIGDEEP Water, learning about the Navajo Nation water crisis and helping to raise awareness about the Navajo Water Project to build a well to serve 250 Navajo families near Thoreau, NM. DIGDEEP is one of the only nonprofit organizations addressing water poverty in the United States. But America’s water poverty crisis is too big for one nonprofit to address.  

While estimates vary, the average household consumption of water in the U.S. reaches 110 gallons per-person, per-day (a safe estimate between the averages published by water.org and waterinfo.org). But hundreds-of-thousands of people living in Navajo communities like the one where DIGDEEP works use less than 10. How is this possible? 

Structural issues, many of which have political and historical roots, make it incredibly difficult to build the infrastructure necessary for clean water to reach families on reservations. Homes can be up to 140 miles apart in places like the community where DIGDEEP is working, partially due to the U.S. government’s policy in the 19th century “to isolate and concentrate Indians in places with few natural resources, far from contact with the developing U.S. economy and society,” according to Gary D. Sandefur at the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Reservations like the Navajo Nation are “off the grid” - that is, not tapped into the US water and electricity supply. Part of the (in my opinion, unjust) purpose of this strategy was to make it more appealing to move off the reservations and into cities, where the US government assumed American Indians would be likely to assimilate. 

Another major challenge of trying to build a well in the Navajo Nation is contamination of the water sources. Uranium mining in the Navajo Nation has had many irreparable, terrible effects on the environment, well-documented by investigative journalist Judy Paternak in Yellow Dirt: A Poisoned Land and the Betrayal of the Navajos. In order to avoid contaminated water, DIGDEEP will drill 2000 feet to reach clean water, a very costly task. In fact, this project will cost $450,000, compared to a well in South Sudan, which cost $8,000. 

 

  A woman delivers clean water in Navajo communities. Photo via  http://digdeeph2o.tumblr.com/ .

A woman delivers clean water in Navajo communities. Photo via http://digdeeph2o.tumblr.com/.

A lack of clean water contributes to overall poverty; living without a sink or toilet severely limits health, education, personal security, and economic growth. More than 44 percent of Navajo children live below the poverty line, according to the US Census from 2010, which is twice the national average. In order to escape the cycle of poverty, Navajo families need access to water in their homes. To accomplish this, DIGDEEP’s Navajo Water Project will require a new well, fill station, and the construction of gravity-fed water systems outside local homes to successfully address these families’ water needs.

In November, I went with DIGDEEP to the project site. We arrived on a Monday morning, the sky so blue it hurt my eyes, the burnt orange cliffs standing guard over the reservation, and the air crisp with the edge of winter. The DIGDEEP crew gathered around the delivery truck at St. Bonaventure Indian Mission with Darlene Arviso, who delivers water to Navajo families every month. The big yellow truck that carries water to Navajo families is a permanent traveling feature of the region, and children run out of their homes when they see it coming, shouting in excitement.

The role of local organizations like the Indian Mission is crucial to the sustainability of a water project like this one. The Mission is almost entirely run by members of the Navajo community it serves. While we were there to collect footage for DIGDEEP’s holiday campaign, the reality is that an organization like DIGDEEP can only do so much; it’s because of partnerships with local nonprofits like St. Bonaventure Indian Mission that DIGDEEP is confident that 250 more families will soon have reliable clean water access. What makes this project sustainable is that the core of it depends on Navajo women like Darlene helping her own people.  Active participation by families, Navajo Chapters (local governance), and regulatory bodies will help ensure long-term sustainability. What is important is that the Navajo Water Project is community-led and unique to the people it serves.

Darlene delivers a limited amount of water from a well up to 70 miles away, but by the middle of the month, most families run out and resort to collecting additional water from other sources like open livestock troughs. Many keep their water in buckets and barrels on their front porches, which must be moved inside during the winter. The Navajo Water Project will improve conditions by providing every home with an elevated water tank and solar heating element, using gravity to feed sinks and toilets year ‘round.

Darlene not only delivers water, but also stops to check on families who may not see other visitors from the mission for weeks. Before delivering water, she also drives the school bus on the reservation. Although she spends all day bringing water from home to home, hogan to hogan, counseling along the way, at the end of the school day, Darlene is back at the wheel of the school bus, ready to bring children back home. Her face breaks into a smile when she talks about her work. “I love my job,” she told us.

Reservations are often hidden from sight; the real injustices suffered by neighbors so close to home are often hard to see. Justice demands that Americans act to defend everybody’s right to water. The right of the Navajo to water access at home is one that all Americans need to work much harder to defend. The Navajo Water Project is a small step toward defending that right, but we have a very long way to go. 

-Tala Strauss is a recent graduate of Gordon College, where she studied political science and philosophy. Currently, she is interning with DIGDEEP Water and the Center for Public Justice. She lives in Los Angeles and on social media. @talastrauss