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Emma Robbins directs the Navajo Water Project at Dig Deep.
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  • One in three homes on the Navajo Nation don’t have running water at home.
  • That can make isolating and sheltering in place during the coronavirus pandemic near impossible.
  • Emma Robbins and her team at the Navajo Water Project have been dispatching hundreds of water storage tanks that can hold a month’s worth of water to houses across the reservation.
  • This Giving Tuesday, the Navajo Water Project is fundraising for two new $150,000 trucks to deliver water to those tanks. Donations will be matched 100%.
  • “We’re not just these unicorns,” she said. “There are a lot of amazing people who are doing the work.”
  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

If young Emma Robbins ever got thirsty while visiting her grandparents, she drank soda from a can — the syrupy sweet kind that was off-limits back home at her parents’ house, where water flowed freely from the faucet.

“Some of the first Navajo words that I learned was how to say, ‘Can I have a pop?'” she said, remembering how “exciting” it felt to ask her grandma for a drink in that way. “It was something that my grandparents always had. I think it was because it’s like, ‘if you want a beverage, that’s what you’re going to drink, because you’re conserving water.'”

Robbins and her grandparents lived on the Navajo Nation, a swath of indigenous land larger than West Virginia, which stretches over an area of the southwestern US due east of the Grand Canyon, touching Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico. Robbins, who grew up in Tuba City, the largest community on the reservation, had a running shower, and a tap at home. Things were different for her grandparents, who lived about 25 miles South of the city in Cameron, and had to make careful decisions about where each drop of water went every day, from washing the dishes to feeding their animals.

Their situation was not unusual then, and still today, one in three homes don’t have piped water service on the Navajo Nation.

“Any issue with native nations and the federal government, things like infrastructure, like water, electricity, it’s definitely rooted in broken treaties,” Robbins said.

Robbins is an artist and a water-bearer on the Navajo Nation

Half Jewish, half-Navajo, Robbins affectionately calls herself a “Nava-Jew.”

As she grew older, she moved off the reservation to go to art school, and began working in a commercial art gallery in Chicago. It was at that point, in May 2016, that she felt called back to work on the Navajo Nation, where she grew up.

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Mia + Family, 2020 | inkjet print, artwork by Emma Robbins.
Emma Robbins

“It sort of hit a point where there was a lot going on in the world that I realized I really need to use my voice and my platform as an artist and as someone who has deep connections to the land and the reservation and fight for clean water,” she said.

Robbins now directs the Navajo Water Project for Dig Deep, a nonprofit bringing running water to people across the United States who lack access.

She has made it her mission over the past four-and-a-half years to improve water access on the reservation she’s from, by installing nearly 300 below-ground, 1,200-gallon water tanks, which connect people’s homes on the Navajo Nation to taps and solar panels, providing them with a one month supply of running water, both hot and cold (and enough electricity to charge up their phones). The water source is then replenished each month, by Dig Deep’s traveling water truck.

This Giving Tuesday, December 1, the organization is raising money for two new $150,000 trucks, doubling every dollar donated with a 1:1 matching donation. It’s part of the group’s holiday drive to bring running water to 100 new families on the reservation.

Bringing water home during the pandemic is challenging

Thimblez, 2019 | artwork by Emma Robbins, made from thimbles, thread, and wool blanket scraps.
Emma Robbins

During the pandemic, Robbins had to stop installing hot water systems in homes.

The number of coronavirus cases over the spring and early summer on the Navajo Nation skyrocketed, with a case rate per capita that at one point topped hard-hit New York City.

“We’re not able to come together and do things like taking care of one another,” Robbins said. “We can’t work in families’ homes. We can’t interact with community members. It’s just not safe.”

And yet, her work is more pressing now than ever. It is near impossible for families on the reservation to quarantine, isolate, or shelter in place properly if they have to run out and stock up on water bottles at Walmart or the grocery store every few weeks.

Robbins and her team distributed 262,000 gallons of donated bottled water to 30,000 families during the early days of the pandemic. But she knew that plastic-heavy system couldn’t last.

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American flags wave in the wind at the Fort Defiance Veterans Memorial Cemetery during a 57-hour stay-at-home order on Sunday, May 24, 2020 on the Navajo Nation.
Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

“It’s not sustainable and it’s not a long-term solution,” she said.

Getting creative to find COVID-safe solutions

Now, Robbins and her team at Dig Deep, working alongside other community partners in the Navajo Nation COVID-19 Water Access Coordination Group (WACG), are finding COVID-safe ways to bring more people on the Nation water access at home, for the first time, working with the Indian Health Service, tribal officials, NGOs, and universities.

“It’s not just water access during COVID, it’s a long-term project. And it’s been really cool, because as someone from the res, I’ve never seen that before,” she said.

One solution she and her team at Dig Deep developed to help families during the pandemic is dispatching 275 gallon, above-ground water storage tanks to people’s yards, which can be refilled safely, without any face-to-face contact.

“By the end of the year, we’ll do 840 of these,” she said. That could benefit more than 10% of the population — upwards of 3,360 people on a Nation of roughly 173,600.

It’s a major change to the Navajo Water Project system, bringing tanks to many more different areas of the reservation than before, and much more quickly, too.

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Robbins (left) in the field, distributing water tanks.
Dig Deep

Holiday drive to reach 100 more families

The success with the above-ground tanks has created a new problem, though. Dig Deep now needs two new water tankers to be able to deliver the monthly water allotments to the tanks which are now spread far across the reservation — something they hope to fix with their donation drive on December 1.

Because of a provision baked into the pandemic CARES Act, up to $300 of any donations made can be deducted from a person’s taxable income this year, without itemizing, if they want to contribute to the cause.

“Just making sure that people can shelter in place is such a huge thing,” Robbins said. “Not having running water is not something that is only during COVID. It’s 24-7, 365.”

‘We’re not just these unicorns’

Robbins wants people to know she’s not unique. There are plenty of others out there bringing water, and other essential services, back home to the Nation.

“When we talk about ‘doers,’ like myself and our team members … we’re not just these unicorns,” she said. “There are a lot of amazing people who are doing the work.”

Robbins younger sister, for example, now works for the tribal government on the Nation, in the land department.

“We are a matrilineal society,” she said. “I’ve always been taught this is such an important role, to care for your sisters and to care for your family, and your elders. It’s kind of this instinctual thing where we step up and say, ‘this is a role of power.'”

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