September 29, 2020

Four Ways to Improve Water Access in Navajo Nation during COVID-19

September 29, 2020

In May, Navajo Nation had the highest per capita COVID-19 infection rate in the country. As of September 29, there were more than 10,300 reported cases of COVID-19 and 555 confirmed deaths from a population of roughly 175,000. Public health measures have been enacted, including reservation-wide daily curfews and weekend lockdowns, increased testing and screening locations, and a surge in grassroots efforts by tribal members.

Lack of access to clean water may have exacerbated the spread of the coronavirus and has complicated efforts to curtail it. Today’s water crisis is rooted in settler colonialism and has been perpetuated by a system of structural racism via federal policies, institutional practices, and societal norms. Federal policies in the late 19th and early 20th century limited the reservation to the driest one-third of the Navajo’s ancestral homeland (PDF). Climate change and drought (PDF), chronic underfunding of infrastructure and health (PDF) programs, delayed water rights settlements, and contamination from industrial waste in unregulated drinking water have all worsened the problem.

Today, more than one-third of the population lacks access to running water or indoor plumbing facilities. The average American uses 88 gallons per day, but many residents of Navajo Nation have fewer than 10 gallons of water at home at any given time, sometimes using as little as 2 to 3 gallons of water per day.

We spoke with experts in the federal government, academic researchers, and nonprofit organizations working on the ground in Navajo Nation who highlighted some of the most promising solutions being implemented right now to help with the crisis.

1. Expand simple solutions to meet urgent needs

Households with people who have been diagnosed with COVID-19 or are at risk of becoming seriously ill if they contract the coronavirus require solutions that can be implemented today. Some of the following solutions are simple, easy to implement, and cost-effective:

  • increasing household water deliveries
  • expanding household storage so people require fewer water deliveries
  • delivering water disinfectant tablets when containers are filled to ensure water is clean and safe for consumption
  • providing households with home hand-washing stations, hand sanitizer, and water-testing kits
  • increasing public education and outreach on the importance of accessing water from regulated water points and safe water-hauling practices

These actions will make it easier for people to quarantine if they are sick and to socially distance if they are members of population that faces a high-risk of becoming seriously ill from the virus. An existing network of nonprofit organizations have been providing water to off-the-grid households for years (Dig Deep, Forgotten People, Engineers without Borders, among others), demonstrating that the capacity for getting clean and safe water to these households exists, though additional financial resources will be required to fully meet the need.

2.  Build local capacity

Community-led organizations in Navajo Nation are familiar with local water concerns and are better positioned than external organizations to foster and sustain local support for water solutions. Targeted training and technical assistance may result in stronger public health strategies and water infrastructure. This could include the following:

  • partnering with domestic, culturally sensitive water, sanitation, and hygiene programs to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 and share best practices
  • building capacity among local public health leaders by training community members to use and maintain water and sanitation systems
  • establishing community-driven collectives to test water sources and deliver water from water stations or central wells to households
  • supporting grassroots service providers applying for funding opportunities

Investing in grassroots organizations with strong connections to communities can lead to more inclusive water governance and sustainable clean water initiatives.

3. Increase funding for rural water and wastewater systems

Although Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding for COVID-19 relief efforts has helped address immediate public health needs, Navajo Nation requires sustained state and federal support to meet public health standards and ensure all households have access. Areas that warrant increased funding include the following:

  • Programs that support water and wastewater in Navajo Nation (PDF), including those provided by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Economic Development Administration, the Indian Health Service (IHS), the US Departments of Agriculture (USDA) and Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation. These programs provide grants and loans for building and upgrading infrastructure, assuring safe drinking water, and implementing pollution control activities.
  • Technical assistance providers (PDF) that add important capacity to communities and local systems. Examples include building financial and managerial capacity, understanding regulatory requirements, and enhancing grant writing skills.
  • Direct support for operation and maintenance of water and waste facilities in programs like the IHS that have authority to complete such support.

4. Support coordination of federal resources

The Navajo Nation COVID-19 Water Access Coordination Group (WACG) is a cross-sector working group focused on addressing the urgent water needs facing Navajo Nation. Supported by $5 million of funding that IHS received from the CARES Act, its members include representatives from:

  • Navajo Nation government,
  • Navajo Nation water utility operations and construction,
  • seven federal agencies (the IHS, HUD, the USDA, the EPA, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the Bureau of Reclamation),
  • New Mexico and Arizona state governments, and
  • nongovernmental organizations (including nonprofit, university, and research partners).

The WACG’s mission is to consolidate all water supply resources and partners to coordinate an efficient plan to identify water access problems and mechanisms to address them. Since the group’s creation in spring 2020, they have doubled the number of chapter-operated water points on the Navajo Nation and considerably shortened the distance people must travel to obtain water. They have also introduced the supply of water storage containers and water disinfection tablets to promote safe hauled-water storage and launched a public campaign to change norms around water access and encourage people to use disinfectant. They have also launched an interactive map showing the availability of safe drinking water throughout Navajo Nation.

Additional resources provided through the CARES Act and the sense of urgency inspired by the pandemic have helped the WACG launch a more immediate and efficient response. Additional federal funding would be needed to sustain this investment in Navajo Nation beyond the initial CARES Act funding or to scale it to other communities who lack safe and clean drinking water.

Looking forward

When the pandemic subsides, Navajo Nation will need longer-term investments that yield more sustainable solutions. An important interim step would be the creation of small-scale systems, such as wastewater systems that serve clusters of homes. Higher-tech ideas may also be important for ensuring longer-term access. For example, currently unregulated wells could be made usable again by installing solar filtration systems or other water treatment technologies.

Today, the Navajo people face the same pandemic as other Americans but without a basic tool to combat it: clean, safe drinking water. This inequity contributes to ongoing health disparities and a legacy of environmental injustice for tribal communities (PDF).  For this reason, federal and state policy makers have a responsibility to implement shared solutions and must be held accountable, both to address the current and urgent needs raised by the pandemic and to ensure lasting access to clean and safe water.

Nancy Bitsue, an elderly member of the Navajo Nation, receives her monthly water delivery on June 6, 2019 in Thoreau, New Mexico. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

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As an organization, the Urban Institute does not take positions on issues. Experts are independent and empowered to share their evidence-based views and recommendations shaped by research.