Who’s to blame for the water crisis in Jackson?

·5 min read

More than 180,000 people in the city of Jackson, Mississippi and nearby suburbs are in the throes of a major crisis, with access to reliable and clean running water cut off “indefinitely”.

The problems unfolded this week after record-breaking rainstorms hit the region and dumped up to 13 inches of rain in the state over five days. Normally, Jackson sees a total of four-five inches of rain during the entire month of August.

As a result, floodwaters surged down the city’s Pearl River and compromised the main water treatment plant. This week, people have had to rely on bottled water as schools closed as officials said there wasn’t enough water for flushing toilets or showering.

But the real cause of the crisis begins much earlier, another example of severely-neglected public infrastructure in the United States, coupled with the lasting legacy of racial injustice in a majority-Black southern city.

Add that legacy to climate crisis-fuelled extreme weather events, which are now frequently battering much of the US, and Jackson could serve as a harbinger of more crises to come.

On Wednesday, Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba told CNN that the water crisis is the result of challenges that the city, Mississippi’s state capital, has been dealing with for years.

“I’ve been saying that it’s not a matter of if our system would fail but when our system would fail,” Mr Lumumba, the city’s mayor since 2017, said.

This week, Jackson’s O.B. Curtis Water Plant, which has been in service for around three decades, broke down due to a massive influx of floodwaters. This may not have been as much of an issue for a newer facility, but before this recent failure, the plant was already running on backup pumps.

Even before this week’s floods, it had become “a near certainty that Jackson would begin to fail to produce running water sometime in the next several weeks or months if something didn’t materially improve,” Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves said at a press conference on Monday, referring to the city’s challenged water facilities.

The Republican governor did not invite Mayor Lumumba, a Democrat, to his press conference.

Recent bills before the Republican-majority Mississippi legislature that included money for water infrastructure repairs have failed to pass or were vetoed by the governor, NPR reports.

And this isn’t the only water crisis to recently hit the city.

Last year, many Jackson residents lost water for weeks after a winter storm froze water treatment systems and shut down service.

Jackson has been on a boil water notice since July due to water cloudiness, which means “an increased chance that water may contain disease-causing organisms”. The city has had other boil water notices on and off throughout the year.

In 2020, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued an emergency administrative order warning that Jackson’s water system had “the potential to have the presence of E. Coli, Cryptosporidium, or Giardia”, all potentially debilitating water-borne illnesses that can lead to diarrhoea.

High levels of lead were also been found in Jackson’s water in 2015. While the city has taken steps to address lead, The Clarion-Ledger reports that some amount of lead was still showing up in water samples until at least last year.

These compounding problems come down to what Mayor Lumumba described to CNN as “an underinvestment into this system”.

Jackson’s population has dropped from 200,000 to 150,000 people in the past four decades, severely reducing the number of taxpayers who fund the city. A lot of that drop-off was spurred by “white flight”, or when white people left the city for the suburbs after the schools became racially integrated, Mississippi Today reports.

With less tax money coming in, the city has less money to spend on infrastructure upkeep and staffing, which can result in long-term issues when problems go unaddressed.

Jackson’s population is 82 per cent Black and nearly a quarter of people are living in poverty, according to the US Census Bureau.

The new water crisis has emerged as yet another example of environmental injustice in America. Historically marginalized communities are disproportionately impacted by pollution from heavy industry and agriculture – one study last year found that Black, Hispanic and Asian Americans were more exposed to air pollution from nearly every source when compared to white Americans.

Another new study found that the climate crisis caused tons of additional homes to flood in the Houston area during 2017’s Hurricane Harvey — and that Hispanic communities were disproportionately impacted.

And a 2019 report from the non-profit National Resources Defense Council found that areas with high racial, ethnic and language vulnerabilities had a 40 per cent higher rate of chronic water contamination than areas with the lowest racial, ethnic and language vulnerabilities. That includes places like Flint, Michigan, another majority-Black city that has famously struggled with lead contamination in their drinking water.

Fixing Jackson’s systemic water issues will be an uphill battle.

Mayor Lumumba estimated that fixing the water system could cost up to $1bn. The infrastructure bill signed by President Joe Biden last year allocated $75m this year to Mississippi for providing clean and safe water — but that’s for the whole state.

As the planet gets hotter, extreme rainfall events are also projected to become a lot more common. These impacts can quickly become catastrophic and deadly when they run up against neglected and outdated infrastructure, and not just in Jackson.

Last year during Hurricane Ida, at least 50 people died in New York and New Jersey due to extreme flooding, including several who were trapped in their cars on roads and in basement apartments.