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Water: The Giver and Sustainer of Life

How are climate change and a history of inequity posing problems for Native American tribes in the Western United States?

  • September 24th 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has hit tribal reservations in the United States especially hard, in part, because of a lack of access to clean water. According to the US Water Alliance, Native American homes are 19 times more likely than white households to lack indoor plumbing with running water, a shower, and a flushing toilet. 

Daryl Vigil
, is a member of the Jicarilla Apache Nation in northern New Mexico. He remembers using an outhouse as a kid in the 1960s. Even then, reservations were behind on infrastructure and access to basic necessities to live. 

Now, with the pandemic, the problem has become even more urgent. Vigil says family members have died from the coronavirus. “Because we’re such a societal, communal people, it impacts us to a greater extent. The very thing that makes us who we are also keeps us in a space where we’re most vulnerable because of lack of infrastructure, access and opportunity.”

The threat of infection rises further because multiple families often use one bathroom and travel long distances to watering stations located in distant and remote towns to get clean water. Earlier this year, the Navajo Nation, which stretches from Flagstaff, Arizona to Farmington, New Mexico, was a hot spot for the pandemic. Bidtah Becker, a citizen of the Nation and associate attorney for the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority, says many families live in multigenerational households, which is part of what caused the outbreak. “If one person brings home COVID-19, then you have an outbreak,” she says. 

While the pandemic is providing new urgency to these issues, this inequity has a long history. Most Americans have long taken running water and the health and economic benefits that come with it for granted. In contrast, tribes have historically been left out of major water management decisions in the West which has had tremendous human and financial costs. “The tribes’ development of water rights is really about providing water to their people,” says Vigil, who also serves as a co-facilitator of the Water & Tribes Initiative.

The Water & Tribes Initiative, which is supported by the Walton Family Foundation and partners like the Babbitt Center for Land and Water Policy, was created to enhance the capacity of tribes to advance their needs and interests with respect to water and use collaborative decision-making to improve sustainable water management. 

The initiative is focused on trying to close the water access gap for tribes and create more inclusive decision-making. Beyond the pandemic, this work is also critical now because climate change is reducing available water supplies. Hotter and drier conditions are forcing the United States, Mexico and sovereign tribal nations to find new ways to manage the increased risk climate change brings to the Colorado River Basin and the people, animals and plant life it sustains.

The immediacy of the pandemic has heightened the problem of access to clean water. But the long-term fight to improve infrastructure, access and opportunity will continue for tribes in the West who consider water to be the giver and sustainer of life.

By Moira Mcdonald, director of the environment program at the Walton Family Foundation

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