Sustainability Energy

Turning air into water: how Native Americans are coping with water shortage amid the coronavirus pandemic

indigenous people in blue clinical masks to protect against coronavirus
Photo courtesy of Zero Mass Water

Story at a glance

  • Many Native Americans living on reservations have limited or no access to water, making it difficult to maintain preventative hand washing measures against disease.
  • The coronavirus pandemic has hit many of these communities hard, especially the Navajo Nation.
  • New technologies are helping bring water to Native American homes that lack plumbing.

Washing your hands is one of the simplest preventative measures recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in fighting the spread of the coronavirus. But for thousands of Navajo and Hopi people, a preexisting water shortage now puts them at serious risk during the pandemic.

Now, a nonprofit that developed low-cost handwashing stations for the homeless population in California is teaming up with community nonprofit Red Feather to bring this potentially life-saving infrastructure to Native American communities. 

“We firmly believe that hand washing along with a comprehensive approach to protection is an important part of not contracting COVID and staying healthy,” said Joe Seidenberg, executive director of Red Feather. 

With 170 stations distributed to Navajo and Hopi households, more than 600 people now have access to these handwashing stations, with 250 more on a wait list. Red Feather is also organizing workshops to train Hopi and Navajo community groups how to build the systems themselves. LavaMaex’s DIY prototype is free, but each handwashing station costs Red Feather $230 in materials, not including installation. In addition to a $5,000 grant from LavaMaex, the nonprofit has raised more than $50,000 and engaged 67 volunteers to provide 100 units to Navajo and Hopi households. 

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A Hopi resident who received a handwashing statement said she was grateful, but frustrated that it had come to this. She lives in a one-bedroom house with seven other people, including her husband and four kids, who all tested positive for COVID-19 after she was hospitalized with severe respiratory illness caused by the coronavirus. 

“The people who are in our tribal government aren’t even trying to help us. It’s a struggle and it’s like we live in a third world country: we have no plumbing and no electricity,” she said. 

These handwashing stations are merely a stopgap measure for indigenous communities, Seidenberg said, where high rates of asthma and diabetes make them susceptible to COVID-19. At the same time, the Navajo Nation, which surrounds the Hopi reservation, is a food desert, with just 13 grocery stores serving a population of more than 170,000. And while some have turned to farming to support themselves, a recent drought only aggravated the water shortage. 

“Our hand washing systems don’t solve the lack of water problem. [But] providing running water to a home takes decades and it’s not an immediate response, so these hand washing systems are something we can do immediately,” Seidenberg said. 

One company is trying to address that by bringing drinkable water to homes using hydro panels. Two of Zero Mass Water’s SOURCE Hydropanels can harvest up to 10 liters of clean drinking water per day from the air by absorbing water vapor from the air and condensing it using solar energy. As part of an initial demonstration, the company is collaborating with Navajo Power to bring this technology to residents of Navajo Nation, which at one point had the highest coronavirus infection rate in the country.

When Jerry Williams, President of the LeChee Chapter of the Navajo Nation, first tried to explain this technology to a resident, he struggled to find the words in Navajo. Now, three homes that have been cut off from water lines due to zoning have clean drinking water.  

“I thought I would never see water coming out of a valve inside my house,” one resident told Williams. 

Many LeChee residents drive to the closest store in Page, Ariz., to buy gallons of water in drums, a labor intensive process. Due to housing shortages, many residents live and share water with their extended families and even livestock in some cases. The SOURCE Hydropanels have the potential to improve quality of life for many indigenous people on the reservation, Williams said. 

A total of 15 homes have received two SOURCE Hydropanels each, which are worth about $5,000, under a $100,000 grant awarded to Zero Mass Water. The company is working with Navajo Power on a proposal to allocate a portion of the CARES Act funding for the mass deployment of SOURCE Hydropanels to the Navajo Nation.

“We don’t have to wait for somebody to dig a water line, we don’t have to wait for people to make decisions, this is something that is greatly needed and it’s needed now,” Williams said.