Photo ® Dig Deep
Growing up on the Navajo Nation, Emma Robbins knew that access to clean, potable water wasn’t something to take for granted. Although she had a tap at her home with her parents in Tuba City, just 25 miles to the South in Cameron where her grandparents lived, it was a different story. In Cameron, every drop of water was carefully considered. Would water be used to drink? Wash the dishes? Feed the animals? Bathe?
Some of the first Navajo words Robbins learned were “Can I have a pop?” because that’s what her grandmother would give her – soda from a can – if she ever got thirsty. Water was simply too precious to drink. Even now, one-third of the residents of the Navajo Nation don’t have clean water or an indoor tap, a statistic Robbins is working tirelessly to change through her work with DigDeep, the Navajo Water Project, and now Kohler.
“I’ve been working with DigDeep since 2016, but have known water is precious my whole life,” Robbins said. “‘Water is Life’ is a common saying in many Native cultures, and something you will see as you drive across the Navajo Nation reservation. However, it’s not until you witness how drastically different life can be, depending on whether or not you have access to clean water, that you realize that water truly is life. The impact water has on our livelihoods is remarkable.”
As the Director of DigDeep’s Navajo Water Project, Robbins splits her time between the reservation and the organization’s offices in Los Angeles. The goal of the project is to drive change and improve water access on the reservation. The water crisis on the Navajo Nation gained national attention during the COVID-19 pandemic when the infection rate became the highest in the nation.
"Everyone was in shock that the rates were so bad on the Navajo Nation, but one of the reasons infection rates were so high is because many don’t have clean running water at home,” Robbins suggests. “Without that, it’s a challenge to wash hands for the recommended 30 seconds, several times per day. Families have to travel off the reservation to buy bottled water from stores, which exposes them to others and puts them at higher risk of contraction. The pandemic helped bring awareness to other Americans that this lack of basic infrastructure is a crisis on the Navajo Nation, but this has been a crisis here for decades. We need to come up with more sustainable solutions.”
Sustainable solutions that provide safe water for all are exactly what Kohler and DigDeep are working to identify and implement with the new Water is Life microgrant program. The program will provide financial support in the form of microgrants for local entrepreneurs or community groups who present innovative ideas that will help solve challenges related to universal access to clean water and sanitation. Projects led by Navajos and that are based on the Navajo Nation will be prioritized in 2021.
“It’s important that as a Navajo woman I take care of my community,” Robbins says. “It’s a lesson that I learned from the women in my family that we must care for our family, especially our elders. When communities rise, we all rise.”