Project Pine Ridge // America
This dispatch is a little longer than ones I’ve done in the past – which is very indicative of how much it impacted me. It’s been one of the most powerful experiences I’ve ever had. I love getting schooled. With WAVES FOR WATER programs in 12 countries and counting, I get schooled a lot. Each project has its own set of challenges and lessons to be learned… and without fail, as soon as I think I’ve got everything figured out – BAM, life has a way of humbling me. We recently launched a clean water project right here in the US – our very first domestic project. Since day one, people have always asked me if and when I would be doing a project on our home soil. My response has always been that I would love to, but only if I could find a need that called for it.
My sole focus with W4W has always been identifying and addressing true need… so I wasn’t about to create something just for the sake of doing a local project. I did look into severely poverty stricken areas throughout many American cities and found that even in the worst crack ghettos people could still walk into a McDonalds and get a cup of tap water if needed – or from a gas station bathroom sink – or even poach water from a garden hose faucet on the side of a building. Point is, people in our country can generally find potable water if they need to.
Then I visited Pine Ridge – a Lakota Reservation in South Dakota. Different reservations around the country had come to mind before, but knowing how insular they are, I had no real idea of how to approach them. Then, through a friend of mine – Amelia Barlow (who has relationships with two prominent families on this particular reservation), I was finally able to get a real look at life on a Rez, and its many challenges. I went into it with a very humble and sensitive outlook. All I wanted to do was learn about their needs and see if I could possibly apply to them, what we do for communities in other parts of the world. Amelia told me that they had big problems with uranium contamination in their water supply. Apparently, when the US government allocated this land for the Lakota reservation they cleverly retained the mineral rights. In other words – “Here take this land, but we can (and will) mine it whenever we choose to…” As a result, there have been a number of uranium mines put in place over the years and the primary aquifers on the reservations are now compromised. These aquifers are what all of the wells on the Rez pull from… So, in this case, when there is a significant and steady rise in cancer cases, there are obvious things to look at. Long term exposure to uranium and arsenic would naturally be at the top of that list.
Again, I will not pretend to be an expert on all of this – but some things in life are just plain simple – it’s actually just math & science. Yes I have my opinion, but it’s based off very basic and relatable facts – if something is considered to be poisonous when ingested (such as uranium and arsenic), then we shouldn’t drink it… or we’ll get sick… simple as that.
Obviously the relationship between the Native American community and the US Government has a deeply sordid past. Again, I will not pretend that I am an expert when it comes to the complexities of this topic… But I will share some of the things I experienced while working out there:
I learned that Pine Ridge Reservation has the number one suicide rate in the world… THE WORLD!! I learned that the life expectancy in Haiti is higher than on Pine Ridge… and the poverty rate there is almost at 50%. Aside from these being staggering statistics, the biggest eye-opener for me is that it’s all right here under our noses. When people think about America, they don’t think of statistics like these – they think of places like Haiti, Somalia, etc…
So in a nutshell – the folks on this reservation face a wide range of challenges that are as hard as anywhere else in the world I’ve seen… And water is just one of them.