In Tuba City, Arizona, where Emma Robbins grew up, the toilets flushed. Water ran from the tap inside homes, and electricity was available to bring more water into the town—which, with a population of about 8,000 people, is the largest community within the Navajo Nation.
Occasionally, Robbins’s grandparents, who lived 30 miles away, would visit to haul water. Others would come and take showers. “Everybody on the rez has families where they don’t have running water,” Robbins says. “It’s not really a big deal—not a big deal, meaning you don’t notice it as a kid.”
It wasn’t until she was older—and after watching her family members get ill or even pass away from uranium-contaminated water—that Robbins realized this shouldn’t be the norm. “I always say, ‘You can’t be Native and not care about water,'” she says. “Nobody can live without water.”
More than two million people in the United States don’t have running water, according to a 2019 report by nonprofit DigDeep and the US Water Alliance. Native Americans are the most affected, with Native households being 19 times more likely to go without indoor plumbing. Across the Navajo Nation, about 30 percent of residents don’t have running water or toilets in their homes.
Global crises like the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change make a bad problem worse. Last year, amid the outbreak of the virus, the Navajo Nation suffered from the highest rate of COVID-19 infections per capita in the United States. Rural areas lacked sufficient access to water to wash hands, and many residents, forced to congregate in stores or watering sources, were unable to quarantine for long periods of time. (The Navajo Nation has since flattened the curve, and more than 70 percent of its population is fully vaccinated.)
Robbins, a Diné artist and organizer, now works as the executive director of the Navajo Water Project, an Indigenous-led branch of DigDeep. NWP has installed nearly 300 home water systems and upward of 1,400 water storage tanks across the Navajo Nation since its inception in 2014. And though the pandemic made it impossible to safely install water systems inside clients’ homes, the organization shifted to installing what they call the “suitcase” system, a compact version of home water systems that are instead installed outside. By the end of this year, more than 100 suitcases will have been installed.
“There’s a lot of love that goes into [this work],” Robbins says. “Everything works differently on reservations. It moves a lot slower. So it’s been phenomenal to see how quickly and how successfully and efficiently we’ve been able to do this work.”
Ahead, Robbins talks further with BAZAAR.com about the mental toll of finding safe water, the broken treaties that created the water crisis, and the potentially life-changing funding from President Joe Biden’s $1 trillion infrastructure bill.