#4Liters: The Navajo Water Project

By: Briana McDonald

If I asked you to describe your daily routine, it would probably go something like this: get out of bed. Shower. Brush my teeth. Make breakfast. Just with those four activities, you’ve likely used over twenty gallons of water – and you haven’t even made it out of the house yet. Through tasks like showering, preparing food, and staying hydrated, the average American uses one hundred gallons of water per day. We count on the fact that we can turn on a tap and clean, usable water will flow out. However, for many families across the world, and even in the United States, this isn’t a reality.

The Navajo Nation is a Native American reservation that spans across northeastern Arizona, southeastern Utah, and northwestern New Mexico. It is recognized by Congress as a sovereign nation and has its own government. Even so, families that reside in the Navajo Nation are missing many of the luxuries that other American families get to enjoy. One of these luxuries is water. The Navajo people are 67 times more likely than other Americans to live without running water; 40% of these families do not have running water in their homes. Because of the size of the Nation, many Navajo families live in isolation, some fifty miles from the nearest well. So they store their water in giant buckets and tubs that are often kept outside, uncovered and exposed to the elements. The water that is kept inside is used for washing, cooking, and other tasks, but it is also kept in tubs as many Navajo homes have no plumbing system and no working tap. Water trucks come as often as they can to fill the buckets, but due to the large demand and size of the Nation, visits are few and far between. All these factors result in the Navajo having to consolidate, using an average of seven gallons of water per day.

But water poverty is not the end of the inconvenience; a need for water creates various other issues. Not having clean water can cause disease, an inability to travel to school or work, and a sense of isolation from others.

The organization DIGDEEP is a non-profit dedicated to providing water and feasible water solutions to families that have limited or no access to water all over the world. DIGDEEP has roots in Africa and the Americas, but one of their focuses is on the Navajo Nation. The Navajo Water Project is part of DIGDEEP and has enacted various programs to raise donations for its solutions. One of these solutions is to build a new well at Smith Lake, a large water source in the conservation area. This will provide treated water to water trucks for delivery to families. The Project has also hired a new driver and added an additional truck, hoping to speed up delivery and increase the average water consumption to 30 gallons per day. One of the most interesting solutions is a tank system, in which 1200-gallon tanks are installed underground near Navajo homes and a pump system is installed to allow water to flow to sinks, showers, and toilets inside. All of this is made possible by The Navajo Water Project and its local partner, the St. Bonaventure Indian Mission, which provides various services to thousands of Navajo families in New Mexico.

Photo thanks to NavajoWaterProject.org.

Now, your next question may be: well, if these solutions are being enacted, what can I do to help? DIGDEEP has a social media awareness campaign that is both clever and eye-opening: the #4Liters Challenge. The #4Liters Challenge demonstrates the effects of water poverty; each person that accepts the challenge is asked to live for twenty-four hours on only one gallon of water, an estimation of the amount that many people across the world must use to ensure they have enough for the days ahead.

I recently spoke with RJ Aguiar, an online presence whom DIGDEEP reached out to in 2015 about the #4Liters Challenge in an effort to promote the movement. His 2015 video detailed his experience with the challenge, but this year’s video was a little different. RJ traveled to the Navajo Nation and witnessed a water tank being installed in the home of a Navajo family, even helping with some of the installation. I asked RJ if he understood the gravity of the situation people in water poverty face the first time he took on the #4Liters Challenge. He responded, “I knew in a pretty abstract sense that there were people around the world who didn’t have access to clean water. I had no idea, though, that it was such a widespread problem, or that it affected so many people here in the U.S. Even then, there’s a difference between awareness and empathy, and I think that’s what makes the #4Liters Challenge so effective. It’s easy to hear about people not having water and think ‘oh no, that’s so sad,’ before moving on with your life. This challenge gives you a small taste of what that reality feels like and just how challenging it makes simple everyday tasks.” I wanted to know what RJ got out of his visit to the conservation area. “Taking the #4Liters Challenge gives you a small taste of what these people experience, but it’s not until you go there that you see how all these factors combine together to create their current situation: water scarcity, poverty, isolation, lack of infrastructure and opportunity…the list goes on. Since I was able to witness one family’s first-step in person, I got a glimpse of the difference it made straight away.”

I then asked if there was a difference between knowing the challenges of having a scarcity of water and actually experiencing it? “I hesitate to even use the word ‘experience,’ because I was really just visiting these families’ homes and community. At no point did I actually stay under one of their roofs or have to share any of their limited resources. I would say I was more of a spectator than anything else. But yes, there’s definitely something to be said about going to ‘The Rez’ and seeing things for yourself. Even video doesn’t fully capture the experience, since it’s difficult to capture certain things on camera. You can’t tell in the video, for instance, just how many flies are constantly swarming about some of these homes. But they can’t really do much about it since keeping windows and doors open is the only way they can get any sort of air circulation in their homes. And that’s just one example. There are a ton of others that would never occur to any of us, since we never really have to deal with them at all.”

I decided that if I was going to write about it, I needed to jump in and take the #4Liters Challenge myself. I soon realized the difficulties of living with a lack of water. The first obstacle was my hair. How was I expected to wash and keep it clean if I would use half of my water by rinsing it? The solution? A small bowl and a very steady hand for pouring water. Throughout the day, I came across various challenges of a similar nature. Should I flush my toilet? The mechanisms of older toilets can use up to seven gallons when flushed. Should I run my family’s dishwasher, or just take my chances using a ton of water to wash the dishes by hand? Even staying hydrated was hard; we’re supposed to drink at least a gallon of water per day, and I was trying to use it to do everything else! It became almost like a game, trying to see how I could use the least amount of water to do the most tasks. But people that actually live in water poverty don’t see it as a game – this is their everyday experience. We, who live in the U.S. with clean, unlimited running water, don’t realize exactly how lucky we are to have it. So you can learn about the #4Liters Challenge and the best way to take it here, or you can learn more about the Navajo Water Project here. But don’t forget to be thankful for your water.

Photo thanks to NavajoWaterProject.org1.

Many of us get stuck in the mindset that if we can’t donate to a cause, then our awareness doesn’t actually matter. But in order for us to come up with well-rounded, feasible solutions to issues, we must have knowledge and awareness of them. So I asked RJ what he believed was the best thing for high school students to do if they want to make a dent in water poverty but may not be able to donate to DIGDEEP. “When it comes to fixing the problem, money is just one component. One other crucial component is awareness. So many people out there don’t even know that this is an issue that needs solving, and there are so many ways to address that without having to spend a dime. The first thing I’d suggest is to of course take the #4Liters Challenge. Then I’d suggest doing research about The Navajo Nation, other Native American reservations, and how they came to be in the first place. It’s important to realize that the current situation that these people experience is the latest installment of thousands of years of atrocity and oppression. And once you’ve managed to enhance your own personal awareness of the situation, you can start doing the same for the people around you: family, friends, teachers, coworkers, and other members of the community. It’s easy to fall into the trap of ‘I’m just a teenager, I can’t really do much, nobody really takes me seriously…’ But realize that we as young people command the Internet and social media in a way that no other generation has before, especially when we do it as a unit. So if we want to address this problem, the first thing we have to do is start rallying together.”