The residents of Baca, a small town on the Navajo Reservation in New Mexico, are like those of any other town in America. There are families both big and small, single mothers and fathers, elders who play Bingo at the community center and elders who yell at kids in their front yard, veterans and store clerks and teachers and students.
But the residents of Baca live without clean, running water in their homes.
I visited Baca for the first time last month through the nonprofit organization I work for called DigDeep. DigDeep is the only organization working exclusively in the U.S. to combat water poverty, which is the lack of clean or running water. Currently, 1.3 million Americans are living without hot or cold running water, and DigDeep is working to fix that by building low-cost, community-led water systems in towns without running water. Their current focus is on the Navajo Nation, where they serve seven towns with their clean water systems. DigDeep sent me to Baca to document the 100th install of one of their systems.
I went to Baca as prepared as I thought I could have been. But that didn’t help. I was accustomed to seeing urban poverty, but had never been exposed to the harsher realities of rural poverty. The remote location of Baca made it so that any factors which contributed to the cycle of poverty—like lack of clean water, lack of available jobs, lack of healthcare and lack of infrastructure—were even less likely to be resolved, which made for a community of people that had so few resources and basic human needs. I experienced a massive culture shock traveling from Los Angeles to Baca.
But this story isn’t about me. This story is about Annie Begay.
I knew about Annie from my very first day at DigDeep. As their field coordinator, she oversees all the water projects in Baca; a job which is made easier by the fact that she was born and raised there.
Most of the residents of Baca are not unlike the average person, but Annie is extraordinary. In addition to being DigDeep’s field coordinator, the 23-year-old is also a volunteer firefighter who spends her nights taking calls and driving drives her unit’s rig to the scene, which she typically oversees as well. She is a skilled mechanic and can fix the rig if she needs, and she also has extensive medical knowledge. After spending most of her nights on-call as a firefighter, she gets maybe three hours of sleep before starting her day as field coordinator. She was also the one who picked me up from the airport, drove me to the various homes where I needed to take photos and accompanied me throughout the whole trip.
I quickly learn that Annie does all of her draining and taxing work with a warm smile on her face. She is quick to laugh or makes jokes. Despite her stubbornness and attention to detail, she has the ability to put everyone who comes into contact with her at ease. She is short in stature, standing at about 5’3″, and has chestnut hair that falls in a shiny wave down to her waist.
That isn’t to say Annie isn’t like the other residents of Baca. Things like fashion, makeup, and material items were of very little importance to her; she wore the same loose-fitting jeans, grey tee-shirt and working boots every day. What was important to her instead was her family, her job and the community where she grew up. There wasn’t a single landmark, plant or person that she didn’t know in Baca. She is actually related to quite a few of the people living in the small region along the Continental Divide in McKinley County where she calls home. Being a part of such an interconnected community, Annie says that it’s really hard to see so many people struggle how they do.
People like Virginia and Dwayne.
On my second day in Baca, Annie took me to the home of the married elderly couple. They were cooking a squash dish of sorts when we arrived. The structure of their home was an octagonal single open room, with two twin-sized beds pushed up against one another in one side and a kitchen on the other. A fire-burning stove in the middle of the room let out through a hole in the top of their ceiling, which kept them warm through 20-degree temperatures.
Virginia has diabetes, and struggles with managing the disease due to lack of healthcare. Dwayne takes care of her as much as he can, but he also needs a knee replacement after sustaining an injury when he served in the army. He has faced numerous roadblocks in getting the surgery from the Veterans Hospital, and only has off-brand Tylenol to help with the pain. “I have to rest a lot and he takes care of me, even though he’s in a lot of pain too,” Virginia told me as she looked at her husband lovingly. “He’s the strongest man I know.”
Despite their hardship, Virginia and Dwayne were very kind, welcoming and quick to share their story. They asked me a little bit about what life was like in Los Angeles, but more than anything they wanted to speak with Annie. It became clear pretty quickly how sacred clean water was in the community, and as the individual providing it, Annie was a beacon to them and the others Navajo homes we visited.
The Navajo people are 67 times more likely than other Americans to live without running water or a toilet, and the residents of Annie’s home region are no different. Everyone in Baca either lives in trailers or houses they built themselves, and many don’t have running water or power. Those without running water get it delivered via water truck or collect it from the well in Thoreau, which is over 40 miles away for some, and store it in large barrels. Several of the residents I spoke to said they sometimes go to the local community center to shower. When they don’t, two to three family members will share the same water to bathe and wash their hair. This widespread lack of access to clean, running water only exacerbates the level of poverty present among the Navajo people, which stands at 38 percent—more than twice as high as poverty rates for the entire state of Arizona. Their child poverty rates are double the national average.
Lack of access to clean water contributes to the cycle of poverty in Baca. Drinking or using contaminated water results in major health problems and greatly increases the risk of transmitting a water-borne illness. Globally, some 842,000 people are estimated to die each year from diarrhea as a result of unsafe drinking-water, sanitation and hand hygiene, according to the World Health Organization. The ability to maintain a job or get an education is also impacted, because people without clean water have to spend large quantities of time finding it and collecting it.
Additionally, women and girls are predominantly more affected by a lack of clean water, as the burden of collecting and carrying it almost exclusively falls on them. Everyday, women and children around the globe spend 200 million hours collecting water—time that could be spent getting an education, going to work or becoming financially independent. As a result, gender inequality is higher among areas without clean water sources. Collecting water also puts women at a higher risk for sexual assault when they have to travel longer distances to find it—which could explain, in part, why Native women are twice as likely to experience sexual violence than women of other ethnicities.
The Navajo Nation Department of Water Sources does not have the tribal, state or federal funds to improve upon the water infrastructure within the Navajo Nation. As a result, most homeowners are responsible for accessing safe water on their own—a difficult task, since many of the natural water sources on the Navajo Nation have been contaminated with uranium as a result of extensive mining that dates back to the 1940’s. The U.S. government purchased the ore during World War II to make atomic weapons, and remained the sole purchaser until 1971. During this time, four million tons of uranium was blasted out of the land, and then the companies abandoned over 500 mines.
None of the Navajo miners were warned about the long-term effects of uranium contamination, even though the effects were well documented at this time. Before the dangers of uranium radiation were made common knowledge, many Navajo people lived in or near abandoned mines. They built their homes from materials leftover from the mines, and they even swam and drank in water that was contaminated with uranium. One study found that 27 percent of the participants had high levels of uranium in their urine, compared to 5 percent of the U.S. population as a whole. As a result, many Navajo people experienced and still experience negative health effects including high blood pressure, a higher chance of developing an autoimmune disease, reproductive problems, kidney damage and cancer of the kidney, bones and lungs. The federal government knew about these problems decades ago, but only started cleanup of the Uranium and the mines in recent years.
Annie lost both of her maternal grandparents to uranium contamination. Many of the elders or older generations are dying young due to these health problems, and new research has also found traces of uranium in babies that are born today.
All of these factors—the entire cycle of water poverty swallowing her community—are things Annie is working hard to change. DigDeep provides her with funding and resources, but Annie handles everything else. She preps all the materials and tools for each install, and she oversees the whole process and maintains and repairs the systems over time. She then identifies more individuals or families in the area who need clean, running water and starts at step one.
Because I was documenting the hundredth install, I was lucky enough to watch as Diane Spencer got clean, running water in her home for the first time in the 18 years she’s been living there. Seeing the face of her and her various family members as she turned on the sink for the first time is an image I will never forget. But for Annie, that was just another day—she gives clean, running water to people who have never had it every single day. And does so without expecting any more than a “thank you.”
100 is a big number, but it barely scratches the surface of the amount of individuals and families on the Navajo Nation that need clean, running water. Luckily, Annie shows no signs of slowing down. She and her aunt Darlene, who assists in the installations, are committing all of their time, energy and resources to solving the water problem among their people.
Although the efforts of this young water activist and her aunt are incredible, they are not unique. When environmental injustices occur within a community, women aren’t just disproportionately more affected—they tend to provide more well-rounded and sustainable solutions. According to WHO and the UN, women’s involvement in the planning, financing and upkeep of community water projects makes the projects six to seven times more effective. Similar results are found when women are involved in resolving agricultural issues. In addition to yielding better decisions regarding environmental justice issues, women tend to take on the role as decision makers and leaders for solving the issues more so than men.
Women demonstrate these facts on the global stage and in their neighborhoods every day. Carmen Yulín Perez, the mayor of San Juan, defied President Trump and waded through waste water to secure aid and provide relief to her community after Hurricane Maria devastated the small island of Puerto Rico. Despite consistent roadblocks, Karen Weaver, the first black female mayor of Flint, made the choice to put the city in a state of emergency when the water crisis occurred and has been making strides to fix the problem ever since. Indigenous female activists are responsible for spearheading the Standing Rock protests to stop DAPL, like LaDonna Brave Bull Allard who found Sacred Stone Camp and Phyllis Young who was an organizer of Oceti Sakowin, the central camp of the resistance. And Annie and her aunt Darlene have stepped up to bring clean water to their Navajo people.
Time and again, women leaders are found providing effective community-based solutions to areas where water crises are never solved. These areas are largely poor or rural communities of color, traits which all lead to a lack of aid, action or funding—until women get involved.
“My grandmother would tell me that one day I might be the person to bring water to my Native American people,” Annie told me. “And right now, that’s exactly what I’m doing.”