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Trucks deliver water to fill 1,200-gallon tanks at homes throughout the Navajo Nation

Providing Water and Hope on the Navajo Nation

April 9, 2021
Emma Robbins
At the Navajo Water Project, Emma Robbins builds trust – and partnerships – with communities to deliver running water to families in need

When we think of the most basic human rights, having access to a safe, secure source of water is at the top of the list. It's something most Americans take for granted.

But where I come from, the Navajo Nation, 30% of people lack access to running water. That's an injustice.

My job is to help correct that injustice. As executive director of the Navajo Water Project, I work with communities on the reservation – some of them extremely remote and difficult to access – to bring running water into their homes.

A child bathes in running water on the Navajo Nation.

We do that by installing below-ground, 1,200-gallon water tanks that can hold a one-month supply of hot and cold water for each home. And because many homes aren't connected to the grid, we install solar panels to provide electricity to power the water pumps and heaters.

There are several reasons many Navajos lack access to water. One, we live on a sovereign nation, the largest reservation in the United States, stretching across parts of Utah, Arizona and New Mexico.

People live very far apart, and it's very pricey to put in water lines. In addition to that, our Nation is riddled with uranium mines, making a lot of the drinking water unsafe.

I am Navajo and grew up in Tuba City, the largest community on the reservation. A big part of my job involves building trust with communities that have endured – and survived – decades of broken promises.

Emma Robbins is executive director of the Navajo Water Project at Dig Deep Water

Even as a Navajo, I struggle to earn trust because people will say, "Well, you're from Tuba City. You're from a larger community, and you know what it's like to have running water or electricity." I tell them that may be true, but most of my family members did not have running water when growing up. And many of them still don't.

Once you start to listen to people and begin to share your own story, you can begin to build that trust. We need to show people that we're not imposing something on them that's not going to work.

A worker fills a tanker truck with water for delivery on the Navajo Nation.

To build those trust relationships, we embed ourselves in community festivals and events, host dinners and make smaller movements before we start our larger projects. It's doing things like distributing water barrels or purchasing the water trucks. We want to show people we're serious, that we're not just going to come in and then leave without having an operation and maintenance plan for the water.

Because the reservation is so spread out, we have our own cultures, our way of speaking, and often it takes years to embed myself and our team in a community.

Workers install an underground water tank outside a home on the Navajo Nation.

We are run by Diné people for Diné people. We have a staff of almost 20, and 17 of us are native. Sixteen of us are from the reservation. We have great allies who are non-native. But we make sure that we're hiring people from the community – showing not only that we are creating jobs, we're also being collaborative and building these projects alongside people from the community. Community members are at the center of every decision, from the first survey to installation and maintenance.

The Navajo Water Project is not just about providing clean water. It's about improving the mental health of people in the community. In the 21st century, if you don't have what other Americans have, there is this "otherization" of people. As natives, we are often cast to the side. If you don't have access to the same basic human right – water – as others, it can be very detrimental to your mental health.

A crew with the Navajo WAter Project installs solar panels atop a house on the Navajo Nation. Solar power provides the electricity to operate water pumps and heaters in homes.

I love working with families that have elders. They are the keepers of our language, our culture and our traditions.

I met a grandmother in Navajo Mountain, one of the communities in greatest need. It's very rural. The roads get very muddy in heavy snow and rain. The community is super close-knit, very traditional. This grandmother was 94 when she got running water for the first time, in 2019. We were able to install a bathroom a septic system so she could stay in her home and continue living in her culture. It was a huge relief for her family.

A woman washes dishes inside her home on the Navajo Nation.

We are at a point in history where it is up to us, as younger Navajo, to protect the culture. The Navajo Water Project is helping our Nation do that.

What gives me hope? It's the commitment I have seen during the COVID-19 pandemic to find lasting solutions. COVID-19 has highlighted problems that have long existed on the Navajo Nation. But I've seen everybody come together and say, "Now's the time that we need to implement solutions."

A family celebrates the installation of running water in their home on the Navajo Nation.

During the pandemic, we've been able to install hundreds of 275-gallon, above-ground emergency water tanks in the yards of people who don't yet have the running water service.

I feel inspired working alongside all of these people who want to make sure that different communities can access these most basic needs.

This article was adapted from a conversation at the Walton Family Foundation's Learning & Leading Together conference on Feb. 10, 2021. To watch the conversation, click here.

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