* Emergency putting "lives at risk"
* Reservation extends across parts of three states
By Tim Gaynor
PHOENIX, Feb 6 Thousands of Navajo tribal
members in the U.S. Southwest face a public health emergency,
having struggled without drinking water for weeks after a long
cold snap shattered pipes across the largest U.S. Indian
reservation, Navajo officials said on Wednesday.
The Navajo Nation, about the size of West Virginia, shivered
as the temperature dipped to night-time lows of 25 degrees F (-4
C) over three weeks in January, leaving as many as 10,000
members without water.
"We are facing an emergency that is putting lives at risk,"
said Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly, who last month signed a
declaration of emergency in the reservation, which extends
across parts of Arizona, Utah and New Mexico and has an
estimated 220,000 tribal residents.
"People with health risks don't have running water, some
communities have low water pressure that are putting health
centers and hospitals at risk of closure," he said.
The freeze, during which temperatures barely rose into the
teens during the day, ruptured pipes, some laid in the 1950s, in
Window Rock, the nation's capital, as well as the small town of
Fort Defiance and in other smaller communities where many tribal
members tend livestock, weave handicrafts and make jewelry.
Shelly is seeking $2.8 million in federal and state aid to
fix waterlines across the nation over a three-week period, and
to cover costs for operating an emergency center.
In Arizona, Governor Jan Brewer declared a state of
emergency over the crisis that has also hit the smaller Hopi
nation, which is encircled by the Navajo lands. A call to the
Hopi seeking comment was not returned on Wednesday.
Brewer's emergency declaration extended to both nations as
well as parts of three other counties in the north of the state
- releasing $200,000 in funding.
HITTING THE VULNERABLE
Navajo tribal spokesman Erny Zah told Reuters the freeze hit
the vulnerable particularly hard, including knocking out water
at a disabled community of five homes in Navajo, a village a few
miles north of Window Rock.
"It can further complicate some of the health issues they
are already experiencing," Zah said on Wednesday, adding
residents were "not taking a bath anymore ... you're talking
about sponge baths."
Brewer's office said the damage to drinking water
infrastructure "threatens public safety and the operation of
basic infrastructure, including schools and businesses."
"Northern Arizona is no stranger to cold weather during the
winter, but unfortunately in recent months we have seen some
exceptionally cold weather," Brewer's spokesman, Matthew Benson,
said on Wednesday.
The Arizona State Forestry Division sent two 3,000-gallon
potable water tanks to the nation this week.
While short of the funds sought by Shelly, Zah said the aid
was welcome: "At this point we are happy that people are
stepping forward and helping and assisting us the best they can.
Obviously, we'd like to see more crews working out in the field
... but as the money comes in, I am sure that we can hire more
There are over 300 American Indian reservations in the
Untied States, where income and employment are considerably
below the national average and infrastructure often falls short.
For some in the rugged, high-desert Navajo nation, the cold
snap outages brought the same conditions to town and village
residents that an estimated 30 percent of the population who
live without running water experience year-round.
"Every winter is like this, it's difficult," said Christine
Black, a Monument Valley resident whose grandmother Nellie lives
in a hogan dwelling, traditionally made of wood and packed mud,
and tends sheep, cattle and horses, miles from the nearest water
"As far as getting water for her, we have to haul it over 20
miles," she told Reuters. "For her, it's year-round. It's like
that for every family in the area."
(Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Peter Cooney)