FEATURE STORY: Yes, Here in America
On the morning of my first day at work I couldn’t feel my hands. It was not because of nerves or excitement, but the frigid air that hovered around zero degrees Fahrenheit. Darlene Arviso, an elderly Navajo woman, chuckled from the driver’s seat as she saw me rubbing my hands next to her. “The desert isn’t just hot. It’s tough year ‘round,” she said. We were driving through Northern New Mexico, just outside of a town called Thoreau on the Navajo Reservation. White snow sat on top of the red plateaus and rock formations around us. Beautiful as it was, this was no leisurely scenic drive. In this sparsely populated part of the country, Darlene is the only source of clean drinking water. I was sitting with the “Water Lady,” and that day, like every other day, she would be delivering clean water.
It was the first day of my internship with DIGDEEP, a water rights nonprofit based out of Los Angeles, California. As a recent college graduate in International Relations and a future Peace Corps volunteer, I had grown interested in global development. I viewed issues of clean water access to be as foreign a problem as Ebola or military coups. So it came as a great shock that my first project in providing such a basic utility began in the United States, just a day's drive away from my apartment in Southern California. As Darlene and I drove that day, filling up cisterns, barrels and buckets with the precious clean water, it became clear just how real – and how American – this issue is.
Driving between homes I was able to pester Darlene with questions fueled by equal parts anger and confusion. As a resident of Thoreau for over 50 years, Darlene knows too well the troubled history that led to the lack of potable water in her community. A chemical sampling of the water from a traditional well would show a variety of fatal contaminants. Arsenic and uranium are found frequently throughout the southwestern U.S., a result of hastily constructed, then abandoned, uranium mines during the nuclear arms race in the 1960s. Both the uranium and the chemicals used to extract the ore have since seeped into the most immediate water tables, leaving the water that one might extract from a basic well poisonous. The Navajo Nation, extremely tight on money and resources, has been unable to provide adequate housing or utilities for its people. As a result, Thoreau and other parts of the Navajo Nation struggle.
More than just history, Darlene is intimately in touch with the struggles of those families to whom she delivers water. On a good day, Darlene can refill the water supply of eight homes given the restrictions of time and water she is able to carry with her 3,500 gallon tank. As the sole water source for a community of over 200 households, this means that a family would have to make a 1,200 gallon cistern last for a month. For a household of four, that is just 10 gallons a day per person for cooking, cleaning, bathing and of course drinking; the average American uses over 145 gallons per day.
Those who do not have a costly cistern system are not as fortunate. Many fill up buckets, barrels, jerry cans or whatever receptical they can find to store water for the month. Storing water in open containers often leads to contamination and disease.
Thoreau is not an outlier. This small town shares its water problem with many other American towns and cities. Beginning in April of 2014, a change in water source rendered the tap water undrinkable in the city of Flint, Michigan. Afterwards media outlets and politicians began national conversation on water access. But still the problem remains greater than most understand. The latest census tells us that at least 1.7 million Americans lack access to clean, running water. These people are rarely urban dwellers like those in Flint. They are more often rural, isolated agricultural communities and are disproportionately Native American. In the year 2016, 40 percent of Navajo Native Americans will live without running water.
DIGDEEP is centered around the belief that every human deserves clean, running water. They are unique in their focus on American water issues, with projects in Arizona and New Mexico and more U.S. locations on the horizon. For DIGDEEP, running water is a basic human right. The organization uses community centered approaches to solve water problems in a sustainable fashion.
The organization is molded in the image of its co-founder and CEO, George McGraw. McGraw founded the organization in 2011. As a human rights law expert, he primarily worked on water rights issues while working for the United Nations Development Program. McGraw fused expertise and passion in creating a nonprofit focused on access to clean water following his work at the U.N. He challenged himself to introduce the issues of water poverty to the nation least affected by it. In the five years of DIGDEEP, they have launched projects in three continents, raised millions of dollars, and brought clean water to numerous families across the world.
It was to my surprise given the organization’s accomplishments that I was joining a team of merely six people, with only two of them being full-time employees. DIGDEEP is a small, intimate team of passionate change-makers. Over the course of five months I had the pleasure of working with a dynamic group who have been able to achieve so much with so little. Over my time with the nonprofit, I was able to be involved in a wide array of tasks given our small staff.
But when I was able to focus on my own projects, I spearheaded a new campaign on the Navajo reservation. My task was simple: to bring running water to one family who need it more than most. For La Tanya Dickson and her family, access to clean water means so much more than drinking or bathing. While working with La Tanya I learned that water means happiness; water means family.
I first met La Tanya Dickson at the community center in the desert town of Birdsprings, Arizona. The bulletin board that hung above our table read “Veterans of Birdsprings” with photos of men and women in uniform below. While we made our introductions, two of her young boys played a giggly game of tag. But that day, it was their little sister Lisa that would be the subject of our conversation. For the past 16 months, Lisa had been living in a medical group home in Phoenix, over three hours drive from her mother.
When Lisa was just three days old she was diagnosed with Microvillus Inclusion Disease, a genetic disorder of the digestional tract which prevents her from processing food and extracting nutrients. As a result of her fragile health condition, Lisa requires constant medical attention and a safe and sanitary environment. But like the majority of the families in the Birdsprings area of the Navajo reservation, Lisa’s family lacks the vital resource of running water. Just months after her diagnosis, Lisa was denied an intestine transplant because of her family's lack of this basic necessity. Without water and electricity, a recovery in her own home would be impossible. La Tanya has already missed some of her child’s most important milestones in development. Lisa’s first laugh, birthday and steps have been in a medical group home under the supervision of nurses, not her family.
After hearing about Lisa’s story, DIGDEEP pledged to help bring running water to her home and reunite her family. To do so we raised $50,000 to build a 1,200 foot water line extension to bring water to the house as well as the basic in-home water amenities. Once given the go-ahead by the Navajo Nation, DIGDEEP will partner with the local Keyah Construction company to begin building.
After launching a fundraising campaign for Lisa, DIGDEEP received an overwhelming demonstration of support from the public, raising the necessary funds in just over a month. “Lisa’s story is so powerful because it so clearly illustrates the ancillary effects of water poverty,” McGraw said. It is not just about bringing water to the thirsty.
For Lisa and her family, clean water means a safe home. It means a family coming together. For communities across the world, clean water access means drastically lower instances of disease and infections. It means women and children can spend less time hauling water and more time attending school or earning money. Water access is an all encompassing issue. It means education, economic development, security and gender equality.
Going forward, DIGDEEP intends to expand its projects within the United States. In partnership with the St. Bonaventure Mission in Thoreau, DIGDEEP will build a 1,400 foot well to access uncontaminated water for the Navajo communities nearby. It will soon introduce a second water truck to deliver concurrently with Darlene, cutting the month long waiting period for families down to roughly two weeks. The neglect and irresponsibility that lead to the water crisis will take years of creative problem solving to undo. Difficult as it has been and will continue to be, DIGDEEP is dedicated to doing it.
In the water truck with Darlene on my first day, I repeated the same few words again and again. “Really? Here? In America?” This ignorance that I embodied on my first day is the very thing that I have since tried to combat. Because despite the collective national silence on water access, the problem is not going anywhere. The 1.7 million Americans will continue to struggle without running water and these communities will disproportionately be poor minorities, particularly Native Americans. It remains one of the great embarrassments of our nation.
“Really? Here? In America?” Darlene responded with a disappointing nod, again and again.
To learn more about DIGDEEP or to donate visit digdeep.org.