By Tim Gaynor
PHOENIX (Reuters) - Thousands of Navajo tribal members in the 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 crews."
There are over 300 American Indian reservations in the United 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 supply.
"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)