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  • Writer's picture@ Cynthia Adina Kirkwood

Navajo Water Is Scarce, Not Cheap

Updated: Nov 16, 2020

Emma Robbins’ grandparents used to live in a traditional hogan like the one above, pictured with a 275-gallon water tank outside. In 2016, Robbins left a Chicago gallery as director to head DigDeep, a Navajo Water Project, which has given hundreds of families easier access to water.


“So cheap, it’s like water” is how President Donald Trump described the low cost of insulin for which he took the credit in the first presidential debate.

“Insulin still retails for roughly $300 a vial,” wrote Nicolas Florko, in Stat News a U.S. health-oriented news website. “Most patients with diabetes need two to three vials per month, and some can require much more.”

When Trump signed four executive orders on prescription drug prices in July, which he said would lower insulin cost from “big dollars to virtual pennies”, the Washington Post reported that it was mostly posturing.

However, it was not the false claim, which pricked up my ears. It was the expression, which revealed ignorance of reality for two reasons: first, water is not cheap everywhere and, second, water is not available everywhere.

Flint, Michigan residents paid $910.05 per year, the highest water rates in the United States, even as it was tainted brown with lead, according to a study by the public interest group, Food and Water Watch, compared with the desert city of Phoenix, which paid the least at $84.24 based on usage of 60,000 gallons per year. (The water rates were calculated in January 2015 before a judge ordered a reduction in Flint.)

The president’s words harkened to a time when many believed that water and other natural resources were infinite, that all we needed to do was turn on the tap. Yet, around the world and in the United States, some do not even have a tap.

“Tucked into the Four Corners region of the U.S. Southwest, the Navajo Nation spans 27,000 square miles (71,000 square kilometers),” according to NASA Earth Observatory. It is some of the driest territory in North America, with a diverse geography ranging from low-lying desert to the San Juan River valley to the Chuska Mountains.

“Of the nearly 200,000 Navajo people spread across that land, about 30 percent do not have access to reliable, clean drinking water and roughly 40 percent lack running water in their homes. Some people haul water more than 50 miles to replenish their cisterns.

“Drought is frequent and pervasive here. It is a nation in need or reliable and detailed information about water resources, whether that water falls from the sky, runs down from snow-capped mountains, or gets pumped up from wells.”

What happens here where water is scarce, COVID-19 becomes a pandemic and hand-washing is one of the main ways to stop its spread?

In June, the Navajo Nation had the highest per capita infection rate in the country, higher than New York, according to BBC News. As of October 5, 10,454 people tested positive, and there were 559 deaths, according to the Navajo Department of Health.

The situation became so dire that Doctors Without Borders, which usually responds to conflict zones outside of the United States, sent a team to the Navajo Nation in May.

“The lack of running water complicates things,” Jean Stowell, head of the organization’s response to COVID-19 in the U.S., told CBS News. “Water sanitation and infection control go hand in hand.”

Sunny Dooley, a traditional Navajo storyteller, was in shock at the rampant attack of the disease.

“When a family member dies, we, the Dine, whom Spanish conquistadores named the Navajo, send a notice to our local radio station so that everyone in the community can know. Usually, the reading of the death notices – the names of those who have passed on, their ages, where they lived and the names of their matrilineal and patrilineal clans – takes no more than five minutes,” Dooley said in Scientific American (July 8).

“It used to be very rare to hear about young people dying. But this past week, I listened to 45 minutes of death notices on KGAK Radio AM 1330. The ages ranged from 26 to 89, with most of the dead having been in their 30s, 40s or 50s.”

Dooley lives alone in Vanderwagen, which lies 23 miles south of Gallup, New Mexico, where the groundwater is naturally contaminated with uranium and arsenic.

“In any case, few of us have the money to drill a well,” Dooley said.

“Normally, my brothers and my nephew haul water in 250-gallon tanks that are in the back of a pickup truck. At Gallup, they have a high-powered well; you pay, put the hose in your tank and fill it up. You haul that home, dump that into your cistern, and you have water in your house. Without access to Gallup, people began to run out of water.”

On May 1, the governor of New Mexico ordered blocking off Gallup to stop the spread of the virus. The lockdown continued until May 11.

“My hogan (traditional circular house of logs covered with mud) has electricity but no running water. My brothers bring me water, and they put it in a 75-gallon barrel. I drink that water, and I wash with it, but I also buy five gallons of water for $5, in case I need extra. I typically use a gallon of water a day for everything – cooking, drinking and washing up. My great-grandmother (a healer and herbalist) used to say ‘Don’t get used to drinking water because one of these days, you’re going to be fighting for it.’ I have learned to live on very little.”

Dooley uses 365 gallons per year compared with the 60,000 gallons used by the Food and Water Watch public interest group in its national study of water prices.

For decades, Western states have squabbled over scarce water. The Navajo Nation has been excluded from key negotiations such as the 1922 Colorado River Compact, which determined the water rights for individual states, according to The Verge (July 6). The Navajo Nation has been locked in water legal battles with states for as long.

“Today, in places like Oliato on the Arizona-Utah border, “a single spigot on a desolate road, miles from any residence, serves 900 people’”, Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said in testimony to the House Natural Resources Committee in June in a hearing over a water rights settlement with Utah.

The scarcity of water is one of many factors, which contribute to the Navajo Nation’s disproportionate rate of COVID-19. Poverty, poor health, poor healthcare, and poor food are other reasons.

Still, there is no denying that the lack of water plays a key role.

Everywhere, water is a precious necessity.

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