Virus threatens Navajo areas with limited water access

A truck driver for St. Bonaventure Indian Mission and School pumps fresh water into a tank at a home near Thoreau. (Courtesy of St. Bonaventure Indian Mission And School)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

For weeks, public health professionals have repeated an important message: wash your hands to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.

But for the 30% of Navajo who do not have running water in their homes, coronavirus poses a bigger threat.

The Navajo Nation, which sprawls across three states, had reported 92 COVID-19 cases Friday, with 17 in New Mexico, 73 in Arizona and two in Utah. There were also two reported deaths from COVID-19.

A stay-at-home order issued by Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez went into effect March 21.

“We know some may need food, medicine, or other essential items, but beyond that we shouldn’t have anyone traveling or going out into the public,” Nez said in a statement.

In response to the virus, the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority has delayed water and power disconnections. The Navajo Times reported that in the small community of Chilchinbeto, first responders were delivering bottled water and other supplies to residents.

But buying water bottles becomes an issue when the few grocery stores have been forced to limit purchases, said Cindy Howe, a project manager for DigDeep, which installs water systems in Navajo homes. Howe lives on the Navajo Nation about 18 miles from Grants.

“We are seeing the shelves here have shortages of cough medicine, hand sanitizer, Clorox wipes and, yes, water bottles,” Howe said. “But Navajo people are very resilient. Our elders are smart and careful about what they buy. Everybody is really coming together, so I see that as a positive even as we’re experiencing this very hard thing.”

A recent report by DigDeep and the U.S. Water Alliance shows nearly 2 million Americans – including 30% of Navajo people – don’t have access to running water. Native Americans are 19 times more likely than a white household to not have clean, running water.

DigDeep is working with St. Bonaventure Indian Mission and School in Thoreau and the Navajo chapter houses to ensure water deliveries continue.

“We deliver water to 220 homes and have two water spigots here at the mission that serve about 500 families,” said Chris Halter, executive director of St. Bonaventure. “We know good hygiene and washing hands is important to combat this disease, so these water deliveries quickly become lifesaving.”

The Mission has instructed workers and volunteers to fill water tanks quickly and practice social distancing.

“A lot of individuals we deliver water to are elderly, and our people have always been good to check on the elderly,” Halter said. “Sometimes families give the drivers food, so we’ve had to tell them not to take that at this time. But our water truck drivers do take blankets and food boxes to those who may not be able to get to town.”

Darlene Arviso, left, a driver for St. Bonaventure Indian Mission and School, speaks in Navajo with Loreen Hays and her 5-year-old son, Bobby Tulley, as she delivers water to the family’s home about five miles east of Thoreau in 2015. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

In addition to water, the Mission is delivering 120 meals twice a day to schoolchildren in the region, airing a public service announcement on a local Navajo radio station with Council Delegate Edmund Yazzie, and working on a donation of masks and gloves for the local chapter houses.

The federal government has allocated about $8 billion for tribal governments in the new $2 trillion coronavirus spending package. Last week, President Nez approved $4 million for the Navajo Department of Health to combat the illness and provide medical supplies and water.

The lack of connected water infrastructure in many remote parts of the Navajo Nation is not new. Hauling water from a well or windmill or having water trucked in for drinking, cooking and bathing is often a part of life.

Emma Robbins, director of DigDeep’s Navajo Water Project, grew up on the reservation in Tuba City, Arizona.

“During the weekends, I stayed with my grandparents in Cameron, and for handwashing, we had two bowls, one of soapy water and one with water to rinse,” Robbins said.

The Navajo Department of Health and Navajo chapter houses have flyers in Navajo and English outlining the symptoms of COVID-19 and how to prevent spreading the disease.

“On a cultural level, we are figuring out how to distribute information about prevention in a safe way,” Robbins said. “It is a challenge to do that without traveling or coming into contact with elders, who are especially vulnerable. For people not on the reservation, it’s important to educate yourself about your neighbors, and respect when a sovereign nation requests that people not visit.”

Theresa Davis is a Report for America corps member covering water and the environment for the Albuquerque Journal.


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