An effort to bring clean, running water to the Navajo Nation is underway in the Southwestern United States. Latter-day Saint Charities, the humanitarian arm of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is supporting the nonprofit organization DigDeep to bring water into homes that lack basic indoor plumbing in remote areas of the reservation in New Mexico, Utah and Arizona.
“We recognize that there are certain human conditions or basic needs that need to be met for an individual to grow and fulfill their divine purpose. Water is one of those basic needs,” said Julie Ramos, manager of the Clean Water Initiative for Latter-day Saint Charities.
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought a temporary halt to installations inside homes, but outdoor storage tanks have been provided to some homes in the meantime to provide immediate assistance to the Navajo Nation.
“We haven’t done any home water installations for almost a year and that’s because we are not going into homes,” said Emma Robbins, executive director of DigDeep’s Navajo Water Project.
After providing thousands of gallons of bottled water in communities across the Navajo Nation during the pandemic, Robbins reports that 275-gallon storage tanks that are temporarily being placed outside homes are being refilled by water trucks for families as needed. The permanent tanks hold 1,200 gallons of water.
“We are starting to implement what we’re calling ‘suitcase systems,’ and they’re called suitcase because all of the elements that would go indoors with a regular home water system are going into these compact boxes that go outside of the home,” she said. “These will bring people running water to one sink, but it’s going to be placed inside when it is safe to go back into a home.”
Robbins believes it may be September before it is safe to go back into homes on the reservation.
DigDeep has been working with tribal leaders and agencies to identify high-risk residents who are eligible to receive the temporary outdoor water systems, including Navajo elders.
“It’s so important that we are taking care of our elders during this time,” said Robbins, who is Navajo. “As a keeper of our culture, of our language and our traditions, when we lose an elder, we lose libraries of culture and libraries of knowledge.”
Robbins said the pandemic has accelerated new relationships in the Navajo Nation. “That has been really great because we have built relationships with new communities.”
Much of the work on the reservation is done by DigDeep’s team, which consists of about 20 employees who are mostly Navajo.
“Our staff does everything. They are very skilled, and it is just amazing because another part of our project is making sure that we are giving people job skills,” Robbins said.
Trained volunteers such as plumbers may be brought in as needed.
It is estimated that more than 2.2 million Americans live without running water and basic indoor plumbing, and many more live without sanitation.
“It is emotionally stunning to realize that here in the USA there are people who don’t have access to clean, running water,” said Lynn Whipple, region manager for the Church’s Welfare and Self-Reliance Services Department.
The Navajo Nation is one of the hardest-hit pockets of water poverty in the country, where 30 percent of homes have no running water and many lack electricity. Some families drive upwards of 40 miles every few days to haul water home for drinking, cooking and bathing while others are forced to rely on contaminated sources of water such as nearby ponds.
“It is deeply gratifying to unite the Church’s humanitarian resources with a group of qualified, capable, compassionate people, such as DigDeep, who are contributing tirelessly to an eventual solution,” Whipple said.
“As we help our brothers and sisters around the world — and in our own communities — with access to clean water, we help them unlock their potential and alleviate the burdens that are placed on them when they don’t have running water in their homes,” said Ramos.
The cost to bring hot and cold water to a home in the Navajo Nation is about $4,500 per household, which includes excavation, electrical equipment, materials and labor for the home water systems.
Every system is installed inside the home with the help of the homeowner, who is taught to maintain, repair and upgrade their system after installation is complete.
DigDeep, based in Los Angeles, started its water project in the Navajo Nation in 2014. To date, the Navajo Water Project has successfully provided hot and cold running water and solar power to 280 homes, benefitting more than 700 individuals in a dozen rural chapters in New Mexico, Utah and Arizona. Power is needed to run the water systems.
The Church initiated financial support with DigDeep in 2019 to provide home water systems in 20 households, benefiting 150 individuals in the Navajo Nation. In 2020, the partnership expanded, and funding was provided through Latter-day Saint Charities for the following activities that are currently being implemented:
— Installation of additional home water systems for 20 families
— Purchase and distribution of several hundred 275-gallon water storage tanks to provide intermediate assistance during the pandemic.
— Water services for the Whitehorse Lake Chapter through distribution via purchase of a water tanker truck
— Research and education to quantify the economic return for investments in water and sanitation interventions and to build a learning cohort to further develop the water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) sector in the U.S.
In 2020, the Church’s clean water initiative supported water projects in 23 countries, assisting nearly 600,000 individuals.
Ramos hopes that, through the Church’s involvement with DigDeep, Latter-day Saint Charities will be able to help provide running water not only in the homes of families in the Navajo Nation but also to those all across the country who lack access to running water and basic plumbing — bringing water equality to all.
“It has been amazing because (Latter-day Saint Charities) really stepped up and helped us out financially and helped us spread the word,” Robbins said. “They are always like, ‘Hey, what do you need, how can we help?’”
DigDeep’s first water projects were in Cameroon and South Sudan, but the work was brought to the United States when they discovered that there were needs within the organization’s home country.
“We started out in the Navajo Nation and that was our only project,” Robbins said.
DigDeep is also starting projects in Appalachia, in the Eastern part of the country (West Virginia and Kentucky), and in colonias in the Rio Grande Valley, on the border of Texas and Mexico, with studies underway in other locations.
“I would say as a whole, in terms of getting the Navajo Nation water — whether it is DigDeep or other entities working together — they’re probably several decades down the road, but it is not impossible,” she said.