A human rights organization is teaming up with a Catholic mission this Advent to help offer free, clean water to an area of the world that often gets overlooked when fighting water poverty: the United States.
“As a Roman Catholic myself and as a human rights organization, we really try to seek out these marginalized populations that just don’t have a voice,” said George McGraw, founder and executive director of DigDeep.
Over the past year, his organization, which is dedicated to improving access to water around the world, has been working with St. Bonaventure Indian Mission to help build a well in Smith Lake, N.M. – one of the most impoverished areas of the country.
“They need their basic rights defended. They need to be taught how to defend their basic rights themselves, need to be empowered and so that’s why we’re working here,” he told CNA in a recent interview.
Roughly the size of West Virginia, the Navajo Nation borders New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona and Utah and is home to some 173,000 American Indians. Of that total, 40 percent of them have no water or toilet in their home.
“That’s a worse access rate than a lot of developing countries,” McGraw said.
While a similar project in East Africa would only take about $8,000 to complete, he added, the water project in New Mexico is estimated to cost close to $400,000.
“It’s harder to solve water poverty here and it’s tied up in so many other issues of poverty and economic inequality. It’s tied up with other things like drug use, alcoholism, and racism. It’s not a very clear cut issue,” he explained.
McGraw says his organization always relies on groups that are already well-trusted in the community so they don’t have to spend years establishing credibility on their own. This way, DigDeep can also be sure that their work will be carried out in the future by trusted community members.
As it is, the residents of the reservation around Smith Lake, N.M., rely on one hardworking grandmother, Darlene Arviso, to deliver a few hundred gallons of water to their homes each month.
Every day after she finishes driving her school bus route for the reservation, Arviso fills up the St. Bonaventure water truck and tries to deliver water to as many people in a 70-mile radius as she can. However, with nearly 250 homes to reach, she cannot possibly hit all the residences frequently enough.
“You and I use about 100 gallons of water per person per day,” McGraw pointed out, “so it’s not much at all. The water will run out and then in a couple days they’ll have to go back to hauling water either with their car or on their backs.”
DigDeep’s project will consist of two phases. The first will focus on increasing access and delivery of water by digging a well in the center of the community with free emergency water taps on a piece of land owned by the Diocese of Gallup. Next, they’ll work to improve the trucking system in order to reach more residents in a shorter amount of time.
In the second phase, DigDeep hopes to create elevated water containers for each home to power taps and toilets by gravity and help prevent freezing in the winter.
Although the group has been working on the project for some time, they are choosing to seek donations now during this “semi-penitential season of Advent.”
Just this week, they launched a new website for the campaign, NavajoWaterProject.org, for prospective donors to learn more about the project as well as purchase Christmas gifts that will benefit the project.
“People can buy these online and then all of the proceeds of these gifts will go toward the project. It’s sort of like buy a gift and give a gift at the same time,” McGraw said.
As Americans gather with loved ones to celebrate Christmas, he noted, it is important for them to remember that “other American families will are going to celebrate the holiday without a tap or toilet at home.”
Far from being solely a foreign issue, he said, “water poverty has a zip code – these are American families that live just hours from you.”