Two million people lack running water in the US. This Navajo Nation team is turning on the taps on tribal land

For 76 years, Lucy Vandever lived without running water. Then one day, she could turn on the taps.

“She bought herself a washer and dryer, and loves to water the trees that she’s planted. I’ll see her washing her car outside. Those are some things that I like to see, especially for our elderly people,” Cindy Howe, Ms Vandever’s niece, told The Independent.

Ms Vandever had been bottom of a waiting list to have her home hooked up to a water main “for years and years”, her niece said.

As a member of the Navajo Nation, the tribal elder’s experience is far from unique. A lack of clean, safe water affects around 30 per cent of the 173,000 people on the Navajo Nation, a vast territory equivalent in size to West Virginia, which spans Utah, Arizona and New Mexico in the American Southwest.

It is a shameful, lesser-known reality of the United States in 2022 – where the wealthy fret over drought-stricken Koi ponds, celebrities drench the lush grounds of California megamansions, and luxury hotels boast water sommeliers – that about 2.2 million people Iive without running water.

The issue affects Native Americans at 67 times the rate of white Americans; Black and Latino people are twice as likely to be affected than white Americans.

From California’s Central Valley to the Texas border, Alabama and West Virginia to Puerto Rico, there are homes lacking this basic right.

The overarching theme is that the poor, historically disenfranchised and minorities are hit hardest.

If turning on taps, running a hot shower and flushing the toilet come as second nature, it can be hard to imagine life without.

Tina Becenti doesn’t have to. Until recently, the manager of the Navajo Nation’s Baca/Prewitt community chapter was raising her three teenagers and twin four-year-old girls in a home without running water.

”We used to pack buckets, empty milk plastic jugs, little pickle jars – whatever we could fill water in – and drive down the road to my mom’s house,” she told The Independent. “We would use her water to fill up and bring it back to the house.”

In lieu of an inside toilet, Ms Becenti has rented a Porta-potty. ”I didn’t realise that it would cost over $100 a month,” she said. “To some people that might not be anything but for a parent who has five kids and raising them alone, it’s very hard to fit into your finances. But I make it work.”

Not wanting to locate the Porta-potty too close to her home meant that the family has to contend with an icy trail and bitter cold to use the bathroom during winter. The summer brought other concerns.

“[In] the warmer season my main concern is the snakes. At night you can’t see what’s on the ground. I have two younger children who are potty-trained but I don’t let them go out there,” she said.

Living without water goes beyond the physical hardship. It carries a mental burden.

A family on the Navajo Nation celebrate their new water supply

“If you run out [of water] in the evening, you have to get up earlier the next day to make sure that there’s water for the kids to wash hands, brush their teeth, make breakfast,” Ms Becenti said. “It was time-consuming and took a lot of energy.”

While Ms Becenti and her children are still showering at her mother’s house, they now have hot and cold running water thanks to the Navajo Water Project (NWP), an Indigenous-run organisation which has installed hundreds of tanks in homes not connected to piped water or sewer lines across the reservation.

Ms Howe manages the NWP team in Thoreau, New Mexico.

“[My team] like what they do, especially when it’s for a grandma or grandpa,” she told The Independent. “And they really love to help veterans.”

A young boy gets a glass of water after having running water installed by the Navajo Water Project

The Navajo Water Project team work on installing a 1,200-gallon tank at a family’s home outside of Prewitt, New Mexico

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