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Q & A: How COPE is Increasing Access To Clean Water and Education on Navajo Nation.

Across the 27,000 square miles of Navajo Nation in the southwestern U.S., one of the biggest health issues is something many people elsewhere in the country take for granted: access to clean, potable water.

The Navajo Nation’s Department of Water Resources has estimated that 30 percent of nation residents lack access to running water and must haul water to their homes after driving miles to a pickup location, which is often a local community well. The scarcity can be heightened during extended dry weather, and many of the Nation’s 300,000 residents need water not only for themselves and their families, but also for gardens, livestock, and household uses.

And in the arid southwest, surface water is also a dwindling resource. The amount of surface water in Navajo Nation—which includes parts of New Mexico, Arizona and Utah—dropped by about 98 percent over the last century, as temperatures warmed, and precipitation declined.

Water scarcity has been compounded by environmental issues, including pollution from more than 500 abandoned uranium mines in the region.

All of those concerns are why Community Outreach and Patient Empowerment (COPE) is working to expand access, awareness, and education about clean water and its affect on health across all of the Navajo Nation communities that COPE supports.

In honor of World Water Day, which is March 22, two COPE staff talked about social factors that affect water use, how better marketing and fewer sugary drinks can improve health, and a new program called Water is K’e, which is reminding residents to choose water when making decisions about what beverage to buy for themselves and their families.

The name of the program translates in Diné Bizaad (Navajo language) as “Water is Kinship.” And to these two COPE staff—Research & MEQ Manager Carmen George, and MEQ Coordinator Shine Salt—life is exactly what is at stake in efforts to promote clean water.

What are some of the factors that affect whether people choose water as their beverage of choice? Have you and your team identified different factors or influences for elders, compared with young people?

  • Store Marketing – A COPE partner created a video, where they went to a local grocery store and found 19 soda displays inside the store compared to water.

  • Trust – We surveyed 109 community members, 19% have said the reasons they do not drink tap water is because it is not safe.

  • Unaware – Caregivers/parents are uninformed of how much sugar is in their beverages and how it can harm their health.

  • In the past – Elders have mentioned in the past, soda was used as a treat and shared among all relatives compared to now where it’s easily accessible.

We understand that COPE developed Water is K’é program to increase water consumption. Can you describe its goals? What does the program entail?

Thanks to NB3’s Water First initiative, COPE has developed a culturally based and community-informed approach to promoting healthy beverage choices in Navajo Nation. This approach, which we call “Water is K’e,” includes the following multi-level approach:

  1. Promoting a community-wide culture of health through campaign materials, including local champion posters, store marketing materials, and dissemination of the NB3 Zero to 60 Challenge.

  2. Sharing traditional knowledge and hands-on healthy practices through a recently produced video of elder teachings on water and healthy beverage demos.

  3. Increasing access to healthy beverages by distributing healthy beverage kits and water filters to community schools, after-school programs, dormitories, stores, clinics, etc.

Can you describe how COPE worked with community partners to develop this program?

COPE did a community assessment around people’s thoughts and attitudes on water. This is how we tailored the program to meet the community’s needs. The initial NB3 grant was a capacity building grant with 8 grantees; this is how we learned together by understanding the approaches to the community. We shared the types of strategies we were implementing with the Native communities and best practices for a successful initiative.

What progress or impacts have you seen from the Water is K’é program?

The initiative is gaining much more attention now than when we initially started – people are doing the 30-day water challenge on their own and COPE partners are creating small environmental changes by only serving unsweetened tea and water at their family events. Past participants of the 30-day water challenge have mentioned since choosing water as their first choice, they have lost weight and making healthier beverage choices for their family.

Support our Water Is K'é initiative, Ahéhee


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