The Hopi Native Americans live in the Arizona desert, where they’ve been for thousands of years.
They say their community is the oldest continuously populated place in all of the Americas, but right now they’re in a fight for survival. In some cases, with every glass of water they drink.
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At the First Mesa elementary school, learning should be the only concern for the school’s students and teachers. Principal Alma Sinquah, however, is worried her children will become sick and not have a future.
The only source of water in the vast high desert comes from underground aquifers, tainted with unsafe levels of arsenic. The toxic metal can damage almost every system in the human body, and has been linked to some forms of cancer.
At First Mesa, the kids drink either bottled water or from water fountains with special filters.
The school’s faculty do all they can to protect the children, but they can’t continue protecting the kids when they leave. At home, students and their families have little choice but to cook with, bathe in and even drink arsenic-tainted water.
Samantha Paul is a teacher who cooks with tap water, because she said there’s only so much bottled water one can afford.
She is also part of a grassroots movement trying to educate people about the risks. Getting people to pay attention hasn’t been easy. The effects of low-dose arsenic poisoning can be subtle and take years to manifest.
“It’s really hard to comprehend and understand how long it’s gonna take to finally get clean water in our homes and in our schools,” according to Paul.
The teacher has grown frustrated. For more than a decade the Hopi have known that their water is tainted, but the poor, isolated tribe simply doesn’t have money to do anything about it.
There is a little bit of hope, but with it comes a caveat.
Two new wells reach 2,300 feet down into a new, clean aquifer. Without money for pumps, electricity, and pipes, however, the water goes nowhere.
Adding to the reservation’s financials problem is a potential upcoming penalty for delivering non-compliant water. To avoid the fine, the community needs money to get the new wells up and running at a cost of more than $20 million.