Navajo Nation residents cheer next to hydropanels

How COVID-19 Spurred an Urgent—and Lasting—Response to the Navajo Nation’s Water Crisis

New collaborations will more than double the number of safe water access points.

By Kate Harrison Belz

The blue hydrant, standing in a patch of concrete, seems like a simple mechanism.

But to about 80 families living around Navajo Nation’s Rock Springs Chapter in New Mexico, it is a lifeline.

And to David Harvey, deputy director of the Indian Health Service’s Division of Sanitation Facilities Construction, the new hydrant—and dozens like it across Navajo Nation—testifies to powerful alliances formed in the face of the pandemic’s threat to already precarious water access. 

“There’s a mantra in public health that collaboration is what solves problems,” says Harvey, MPH ’07, MS, a Bloomberg American Health Initiative DrPH fellow. “We’re seeing the truth of those words in practice right now in some big ways.”

In early spring, COVID-19 infection rates in Navajo Nation soared to the highest levels in the U.S. Health officials say poor water access likely contributed to the virus’ spread, as it complicated hand-washing and sanitation efforts, and exposed people to risk while seeking water.

About 20% of the Navajo population—an estimated 37,000 people—lack piped water in their homes, relying on water bought from stores or hauled from public wells and springs. With lockdowns, wells closed and stores faced shortages. 

The crisis quickly mobilized groups working alongside tribe members to improve water access, including the Johns Hopkins University Water Institute and the Center for American Indian Health

“Water insecurity here is a complex, multifaceted problem that will require innovative long-term solutions,” says Reese Cuddy, MPH, a research associate in International Health and CAIH. “But with COVID, everyone adopted this mindset: ‘Let’s go, let’s run, let’s do everything we can right now to find what works.”

CAIH has run at multiple fronts: They built hand-washing stations and distributed point-of-use water filters. Last fall, they launched a pilot program installing Navajo homes with hydropanels, which convert moisture from the air into an indoor water source, producing up to five liters of water per day, and storing up to 30.

In April, Harvey worked with Navajo leaders to form the Navajo Nation COVID-19 Water Access Coordination Group: a network of universities, nonprofits, utilities, and federal and Navajo Nation government officials, all working fast to expand water access.

The group will install 59 safe water points, more than doubling the number across the Navajo Nation, where residents can access safe water, containers, and disinfectant tablets for free.

Harvey, Cuddy, and their colleagues hope ongoing response efforts can improve lives well beyond the pandemic. After the installation of hydropanels, some tribe members in their 80s tasted water from faucets in their homes for the first time.

“One man likened it to a miracle,” Cuddy said.