Thoreau, U.S. – Amanda Larson pulls up at a water station a few miles from her home in the Navajo Nation and her three children get to work filling up large bottles lying on the bed of her pickup truck.
The 66 gallons will be used by her family for drinking, washing clothes and bathing — before the next trip out in two or three days to repeat the back-breaking task.
“It’s embarrassing, it’s degrading, it’s heartbreaking for my kids because they can’t jump into a shower like everybody else and just wash,” the 35-year-old preschool teacher says after returning to her prefabricated home in Thoreau, which lies in the southeast corner of this sovereign territory, the United States’ largest Native American reservation.
“This is how we get ready for school, this is how my husband and I are getting ready for work, in these two totes,” she says, pointing to large plastic containers placed inside the bathtub.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Washing your hands is easy, and it’s one of the most effective ways to prevent the spread of germs,” advice it has relentlessly emphasized over the course of the coronavirus pandemic.
That’s just not possible for an estimated 30 to 40 percent of Navajo Nation’s 178,000 residents, who don’t have access to running water or sanitation.
This is seen as a major reason behind the surge in COVID-19 cases within the territory, which has one of the highest per capita fatality rates in the country.
“Water is life,” say the Navajo, who prefer to call themselves “Dine” and their land “Dinetah.”
These three words are spray painted on walls throughout a geographically diverse territory that stretches 27,400 square miles (about the size of Scotland) across Arizona, Utah and New Mexico, a land of arid deserts with striking sandstone formations that give way to high plateaus and alpine forests.
It’s a sentiment also reflected in place names: Sweetwater, Many Farms Lake, Willow Spring.
But these names often no longer reflect reality.
Rising temperatures and declining rainfall led to a decrease in the area’s surface water by an estimated 98 percent over the 20th century, according to a report by water nonprofit DigDeep.
Chronic neglect by the government is another aspect to this story, says George McGraw, who founded DigDeep in 2012 to help communities in Sub-Saharan Africa but who has since shifted his focus to America.
Starting in the mid-19th century, the US began heavily investing in water and sanitation systems — but an estimated two million of America’s 330 million people remain unconnected to this day.
“There are these gigantic swaths of the country, mostly black, brown, indigenous and rural, that were bypassed when it came to the major federal infrastructural investment that was made to service the rest of the country,” he said.
Native Americans are the hardest hit group: 58 out of every 1,000 households lack complete plumbing, compared to…