The Navajo Nation Can't Go It Alone in Their Struggle for Clean Water
Impact Water

The Navajo Nation Can't Go It Alone in Their Struggle for Clean Water

Activists felt the defeat in Trump’s allowance of the Dakota Access pipeline, but there’s another fight to be won in the American southwest.
June 5, 2017, 8:34pm

The fate of the safety of the water at Standing Rock may now be largely in the hands of big oil. But there is another fight to be won in a longer war that many don't even know exists. It's not a breaking news story, it's been a slow, exhausting, and absurdly painful process in the human right to water in an area the size West Virginia that stretches across Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. The Navajo reservation is the largest in America and is home to about 170,000 tribespeople.Today 40 percent of people on the res still live without running water or electricity.


Sarah Begay is a great grandmother of nine who drives a GMC 4x4 and has lived her whole life there. If you come out to her home, she'll happily regale you with stories of her youth, where she's seen the struggle for water in many forms.

"When I was a little girl, we'd get it by filtering snow through a sack to make sure there weren't any bugs," she told VICE Impact. As she got older, things evolved a little. "We got bucket of water from windmills, but they shut those down when they found out they made us sick." She's referring to the mass uranium poisoning caused by mining companies across the southwest pulling it out of the ground between 1944 and 1986. Documented cancer rates doubled between the 1970s and the 1990s, and according to a study by the Southwest Research Information Center in partnership with the CDC, 33 percent of babies born in 2002 had birth defects that correlated to the lasting impact of the uranium poisoning. Today the area of the reservation Begay lives on gets their water from trucks, except when the unpaved mud roads get un-driveable due to weather. Then she and others have to make do with whatever they have left.

Current estimates show that between 1.3 and 2 million people are living without reliable clean running water in the US.

"These are people who at times need to live on a gallon of water a day, more frequently than not," says George McGraw, a human rights activist working hard to fill the gaping hole in water access. He founded Dig Deep, the only organization in America turning its focus exclusively to water issues here in the US. "When we started, more than 70 percent of global water projects were failing in their first year, " he told VICE Impact. "Now, the international community has come together and we can trust organizations to do the work we might do in places like South Sudan or Cameroon. We can step into this space where no one is working that's being completely ignored."

Photo via Heather Gildroy for DigDeep Water.

He started the Navajo Water Project on the reservation by just listening. "It was really important that we didn't come in with a solution or come in with guns blazing saying, 'Hey, you need this thing and we know the way to get it for you. Here's the solution." So, for two years he just got to know the community and what was important to them. "The feedback we got was, 'We want more water, we want it to be reliably clean, and we want it to be hot and cold and running in our house like everybody else.'"

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The problem with getting reliable clean running water to the 40 percent of people who don't have it is that it takes money and time. "If you ask the Tribal Utility Authority, they'd hand you their global water plan and say here's how many billions of dollars it's going to take us to lay water lines," McGraw said. "That's going to take 50 to 80 years, those water lines aren't going to reach everybody and the water that they deliver is going to be incredibly expensive."

As a way to deal with that reality, Digg Deep got to work building simple and scalable technologies in the forms of wells and cisterns to ensure that families could have reliable water that wouldn't disappear. So far he's installed 60 systems serving 228 clients in total.

"I don't believe this problem would exist if Americans had a better relationship with their own water."

Begay says the impact is huge. "Life without water, it's very devastating. We have to strategize how to make it last reusing cooking water for bathing or cleaning. We have to work together as a community to make it. George is really a blessing for these people. They don't have to struggle."

Photo via Jake Viramontez for DigDeep Water.

Sarah Begay and family.

McGraw dreams big when he thinks about the future of water on the reservation, but he also fears the worst. Current estimates show that between 1.3 and 2 million people are living without reliable clean running water in the US, and McGraw added that number could reach up to 10 million as climate changes and water resources shift. He explained that the government and other organizations using new economic models and utility companies stepping up could make it doable. But it also requires the enlightenment of the American consumer. The average American uses around a hundred gallons per person per day at home for basic things like bathing, drinking and preparing food -- more than anyone else in the world.

Photo via Jake Viramontez for DigDeep Water.

"I don't believe this problem would exist if Americans had a better relationship with their own water, and we take it completely for granted," McGraw said. While he acknowledges that consumption at home is a very small percentage of water use in the US, he also sees it has larger implications. "Human behavior which starts in the home drives the way water is used in industry and agriculture. It also changes consumer side economics by changing purchasing habits and the companies that people identify with."

One way to change that is to get related to the water you use. He asks people to take the 4 liter water challenge, doing everything you need for one day on the limited amount of water. Or if you prefer a more active approach, get involved and volunteer, especially if you leave near a reservation, Flint, or anywhere near the Appalachians, where the struggle is also very real.

Photo via Heather Gildroy for DigDeep Water.

If you are too lazy to try to conserve, or don't live near an affected area, you can spread the word, or give access to running water to people living on the reservation. And you'll know where you're money is going, either by choosing what to purchase for them, or giving a general donation that grants you access to detailed reporting of how the money is spent.

When Begay was asked what she wished more people off the reservation knew, she replied with a bit of desperation in her voice: "People are pouring so much money overseas to problems, but we are here. We need help. We do it on our own," she said. "George helps us feel less alone, but we have got a long way to go."