In March of 2020, COVID-19 stimulated global lockdowns and by May the Navajo Nation that spans across Arizona, New Mexico and Utah had the highest per capita infection rate in the United States. The Navajo Nation is the largest sovereign tribal nation in Arizona and by September 2020, over 10,000 cases and 500 deaths had been reported from the nation with only a population of 175,000 residents. Early on in the pandemic it was assumed that the density of a community would determine the spread of the virus. However, the Navajo Nation has a population density 6.33 people per square is significantly lower compared to New York with 27,000 people per square mile and New Jersey with 1,200 people per square mile, which also had high per capita infection rates around the same time. The exposure pointed to an issue that has been widespread for decades in the Navajo Nation and was now contributing to the spread of COVID-19: access to clean and reliable water.
The current water infrastructure in the Navajo Nation produced challenges to contain the virus since over a third of the population lacks access to running water or indoor plumbing facilities. The Navajo residents without access to water within their homes will devote several hours of their day to retrieve water from communal sources which are sometimes contaminated. Some residents may not have more than 10 gallons of water within the home, while the average American uses 88 gallons of water per day. The water crisis cannot be explained without addressing the historical racism the Navajo Nation has faced in the form of institutional practices, federal policies and social norms that has exacerbated these issues. Not only has this halted progress for crucial infrastructure projects but leaves the Navajo Nation vulnerable to unpredictable events like COVID-19 and climate change.
Solutions have come forward to address current issues primarily associated with COVID-19 but have also focused on addressing the long-term issues of water scarcity in the Navajo Nation. Through collaboration with tribal members, John Hopkins University Water Institute and The Center for American Indian Health, short-term and long-term solutions were formed. The groups distributed point-of-use water filters and hand-washing stations were provided at communal water sources with projects also improving home water systems. Hydropanel pilot projects have proven to be strong prospects for water sources in the future but the groups are currently installing 59 safe water points that provide disinfectant tablets and containers for free.
An additional solution is the partnership between the Global Water Institute and the Navajo Nation to tackle the most serious water needs to provide sustainable high-quality water in the context of agriculture and public health. The five-year project aims to establish “more than 300 new sustainable water access points, including solar-powered water filtration, recycling, and compost hubs, and internet hot spots” while training several Navajo students in these focus areas as well to maximize the long-term impact of these projects.
COVID-19 has shown a spotlight on the water issues of the Navajo Nation that has catalyzed solutions to meet current and future needs that could not have been achieved without the collaboration of tribal governments, educational institutions, and non-profit organizations. Looking to the future, a few journalists asked the stakeholders and the Navajo Nation what would best help support not only their COVID-19 relief efforts but improving the water infrastructure overall. The response was primarily focused on building local capacity, increasing funding for rural and wastewater systems, and supporting the coordination of federal efforts. By focusing on these suggestions, the momentum to achieve water security and sustainability in the Navajo Nation will continue to solidify and support future generations of our nation’s first people.
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