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Water May Be Life, But It Is Never a Given:
Learnings from the Navajo Nation

It’s 2022, and 1 in 3 homes on the Navajo Nation Reservation still do not have a tap or toilet. In 2021, human rights nonprofit DigDeep collaborated with Kohler to launch the Water Is Life microgrant program — which is working to make safe water a reality for all residents of the Navajo Nation.

Growing up on the Navajo Nation Reservation, Emma Robbins — Executive Director of DigDeep’s Navajo Water Project — quickly learned to appreciate access to clean and potable water. Without an indoor tap, her grandparents had to carefully ration their stored water for bathing, cleaning and feeding their animals. Because of the lack of access to clean water, one of the first phrases she learned was, “Can I have a pop?” That’s what her grandmother would give her when she was thirsty. Robbins’ story is a common experience shared among residents on the Navajo Nation, one of the largest land areas retained by an Indigenous tribe in the US.

In the US, many are eagerly awaiting the pending approval of major legislation that’s earmarked for the update and upgrading of critical infrastructure across the country. While this is certainly welcomed news for anyone who has driven across the country and seen the crumbling roads and bridges, the bill also includes $11 billion in funds for Native American tribes for water, public utilities and sanitation: basic services that one would assume would be in place in the most developed country in the world — but they are not.

Over 2 million Americans live without running water and over 44 million don't have access to safe drinking water. Native Americans are 9 times more likely than white households to live without indoor running water. In addition to that, this country is dealing with the intensifying effects of climate change, with this past year being one of the driest in Southwestern states since 1985.

The Navajo Nation faces some of the worst water challenges in the country: One in three homes do not have a tap or toilet. For communities such as the Navajo Nation, providing solutions to these water challenges can be tricky and complex. Without piped water, the cost of transporting water is almost 70 times more expensive. These challenges present the need for long-term solutions driven by the community.

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The Navajo Nation reaches from northeastern Arizona to northwestern New Mexico and parts of southeastern Utah, and is facing some of the most challenging issues of any community in the US. The population is shrinking, household income is well below the national average and COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted its population. Nevertheless, there are many bright spots, too. With many youth returning to the Nation to help family members deal with the pandemic, they are staying connected through social media to support each other, preserve their culture and raise awareness for the challenges facing the community.

One bright spot pertains to community-led solutions spearheaded by the human rights nonprofit DigDeep, which brings safe water to many in the community who live without sinks, bathtubs, toilets and accessible, potable water that the rest of us take for granted. In 2021, DigDeep collaborated with Kohler to launch the Water Is Life microgrant program — which so far has supported a pilot project that installed three in-home water systems for regular water deliveries for a year in Navajo-Hopi Partition Land — a water delivery route that will bring water to 60 families in local Arizona communities and a number of additional projects designed to make safe water a reality for all residents of the Navajo Nation.

“Lack of access to safe water and sanitation is a whole-world issue, with millions of people struggling to access this basic human right every day,” says Kohler Director of Stewardship Cindy Howley. “But it doesn’t have to be this way.”

Government investment is essential to making a step change in making progress, but partnerships between companies and communities is a critical element to building long-term solutions — because the community not only intimately understands their needs, they also know how to solve them. They just need guidance and resources.

Learn more about Kohler’s work with DigDeep’s Navajo Water Project and the company’s approach to innovation from the community for the community here.

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