Access to water is a basic human right that many Americans may not think twice about, yet each day in the U.S., people live without this basic necessity that promotes good health and wellbeing. 

Native households are 19 times more likely to lack indoor plumbing compared to white households. On the Navajo Nation, families are 67 times more likely to live without running water or a toilet than other Americans. And since the onset of COVID-19, the Indian Health Service (IHS) identified approximately 9,650 homes on the Navajo Nation without piped water in their homes. The good news is there are organizations responding to the needs of Navajo communities. 

One of them is the Navajo Water Project, an Indigenous-led initiative of DigDeep, which serves hundreds of families across New Mexico, Utah, and Arizona, bringing hot and cold running water to homes that do not have access to water or sewer lines. This work relies on Indigenous community leadership and partnerships to understand and implement the most effective solutions for Navajo families. 

Giving Compass recently spoke with Emma Robbins, Director of the Navajo Water Project, about its approach, the impact of COVID-19, and how donors can engage with Indigenous issues. The interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Q: Tell me about the Navajo Water Project’s approach. 

The Navajo Water Project started back in 2015 when DigDeep founder and CEO George McGraw heard about St. Bonaventure Indian Mission providing trucked water deliveries to different homeowners on the eastern side of the reservation. By the time I joined in 2016,  we had installed a pilot home water system, which is an off-grid system that gets people piped water through one sink in their home and is replenished by water trucks. There is a 1,200 gallon tank that goes underground to protect from freezing and to make sure the water is stored safely. 

It’s important that anywhere we go that we have an on-the-ground project partner. We have 19 staff, and all but three of us are Navajo. These projects are for Navajos, by Navajos. As a Navajo woman, investing time in these communities is something that is super important to me. 

Q: Can you share more about the project partnerships and how you’re doing direct work with communities and by communities?

We partner with nonprofits, like St. Bonaventure Indian Mission, and with local government. Across the Navajo Nation, the tiniest forms of Navajo government are known as chapters and there are 110 chapters within the reservation. Working with them is critical because they know what is going in the communities. Chapter houses are working on the ground, and especially during COVID-19, they are able to give us referrals for families who need urgent assistance and access to water. 

One thing that helps our staff and me out is that Navajos have a clan system set up based on kinship. So if someone is my clan, they are much more willing to work with me or it’s a quicker lead-in. It’s definitely a way to make sure that we are committed to being here. We’re Navajo, and we want to hire people from the community. Our project is one with a $20/hour minimum wage, and we offer fully paid employer insurance which is important because there aren’t a lot of high-paying jobs on the reservation. I have worked on this for years with my boss because we need to make sure we are taking care of the people who are taking care of their own people. 

The partnerships can take years to develop and that is a huge part of my job. I’m okay with that because we need to make sure that these partnerships are sustainable, long-term, collaborative, and culturally inclusive.

Q: How has COVID-19 impacted your work? 

Until deemed safe, we currently cannot go into families’ homes and plumb them, so we started doing emergency bottled water distribution in March. From there, we shifted to dropping 275-gallon storage tanks at homes which helped people shelter in place and have a safe water source. The silver lining has been that we have been able to expand in communities that probably would have taken years to build a relationship with. The path has been started to working more long term with these communities, which will extend past the pandemic. 

We’ve also been involved in the Water Access Coordination Group, a task force made up of about 20 entities including other nonprofits, universities, and different government agencies, focused on utilizing resources to get tribal homes access to water. We’ve been able to take part in that group and ensure that we are contributing where we can. The projects we all are working on are to benefit the Navajo Nation during COVID-19 and beyond. 

Q: What are some of the equity issues surrounding access to water and the Indigenous communities you serve?

From what I see working on the Navajo Nation, the lack of funding from the federal government is an issue. All of these problems stem from treaties not being honored and not being taken seriously. In many of these treaties, we gave up land and were promised water, infrastructure, and healthcare, but it’s not happening. Branching from that, there are a lot of inequities in the health system. Native Americans have higher rates of obesity, diabetes, and much higher rates of suicide, and domestic and sexual violence.

There is dehumanization at the most basic level that affects who we are as people. We have huge problems like lack of running water, lack of electricity, and the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women’s crisis. At the same time, we still [have professional sports teams such as] the Atlanta Braves and the Cleveland Indians. Oftentimes, I feel invisible in American society and I don’t feel like an American citizen because there is still a dated view of who Natives are. It is getting better -- with movements like BLM -- that have pushed for other communities like Indigenous Peoples to have more equity, but we’re oftentimes put on the back burner. We need to change that and it starts with honoring treaties, educating yourself on whose land you’re on, what treaty is in your district, and making sure that you’re prioritizing Native Nations.

Q: What would you tell individual donors or foundations that are interested in working with Indigenous communities?

I would tell them to take a moment to do research. Look up a treaty that will help to understand why a lot of these problems exist.  

When working in philanthropy on Native Nations, make sure that there is going to be an operation and maintenance plan for everything, and that it is a long-term commitment. The way that you can help is by educating yourself, making sure that your interest is maintained and sustained for years to come, and that you’re investing in communities so they can rise up and have opportunities, better jobs, and obtain basic human rights like running water.