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United States: No end in sight to the Jackson water crisis?

20 June 2023

Less than ten years after the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, another predominantly Black city in the United States – Jackson, Mississippi – now faces a similar problem. Water shortages in Jackson are adding to an already existing social and economic breakdown, which for decades has led to high levels of violent crime. Despite a drop in the number of killings in 2022, the homicide rate in Jackson – a total of 138 murders – is the highest among major cities in the United States for the second straight year. The water crisis in this city is part of a series of systemic and entrenched problems involving race, poverty and poor management of the city’s water supply that has exploded in recent years. 

Jackson’s water emergency broke out in August 2022, when heavy rains proved detrimental to the city’s overworked and under-maintained water treatment plant, leading to significant water shortages. As a result, residents of Jackson – more than 180,000 people, 80 per cent of whom are Black, 24 per cent of whom live below the poverty line – were left without water to meet basic daily needs. There was no water to drink, wash, do laundry, fight fires, take medication or flush toilets during the summer of 2022.  

USA Today network investigation in 2022 revealed that the roots of Jackson’s current water woes can be traced to decisions made over a century ago, compounded by subsequent neglect of infrastructure projects by previous administrations, and exacerbated by a shrinking revenue stream.  

8A volunteer helping to carry bottles of water at a water distribution site during an emergency distribution of bottled water and tanker trucks for 180,000 people. Jackson, Mississippi, United States. Credit: Reuters/Carlos Barria.

Consistent throughout the years has been the pattern of state officials (primarily white) who blame city officials (mostly Black) and vice versa.

Jackson is the state capital of Mississippi. When an 1884 fire threatened to consume its business district, the city decided to source its water from the Pearl River that flowed through the state’s centre. This decision meant that, unlike its surrounding towns, Jackson relied heavily on surface water instead of groundwater from wells and aquifers, which tends to be cleaner and easier to treat, ensuring fewer bacteria and producing a higher and more consistent quality. Surface water from lakes, rivers and reservoirs can vary widely, depending on its source. Surface water is also prone to more contaminants, sediments and debris that must be filtered out. Jackson has minimal access to groundwater due to the state capital sitting atop an inactive volcano. This dormant volcano stunted the growth of the area’s underground aquifers. A new filtration plant built in 1914 promised to turn muddy river water into clean drinking water. Unfortunately, the facilities necessary to produce clean water were never fully developed. ‘Until someone disputes this, and no one has been able to, you have probably the most complex water treatment facility in the country,’ Jackson’s mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba is reported to have said at a community meeting in October 2022.

The investigation found that as recently as 2018, Jackson violated safe drinking water standards and has been under a federal order to fix the issues that affect its water system. In addition, a 2013 decree enacted by state and federal agencies requires utility firms to improve their wastewater system. The decree remains in effect and improvements have not been made. But who is at fault here? Consistent throughout the years has been the pattern of state officials (primarily white) who blame city officials (mostly Black) and vice versa. USA Today reported that every year since 2018 Jackson has requested financial assistance from the state legislature to improve its water system, but these bills die yearly in committees.

The original plant and piping that was laid more than a century ago had already begun to decline just as Jackson’s wealthier white residents fled to the suburbs due to racist practices such as redlining (where neighbourhoods that were predominantly Black were excluded from services, such as access to government loan programmes or bank mortgages). By 1997, when Jackson elected its first Black mayor, the water system desperately needed repair. However, white flight meant the city lacked the customer base to afford the by-then US$300 million improvements that were required. This lack of funds has prevented the city from keeping its two plants fully staffed throughout the years, leading to further deterioration of water conditions.  

Two treatment plants serve Jackson, but the city had outgrown the Pearl River’s production years ago, when it blossomed into a booming industrial town. Jason Barrett, an associate extension professor with Mississippi Water Resources Institute, is quoted as saying that he does not believe Jackson’s decision to use surface water is the issue. He acknowledges that this decision creates challenges. Still, other cities, such as Nashville, Atlanta and Birmingham, also extract water from surface supplies, with relatively fewer issues. According to Barrett, this is a matter of bad management.

Eddrick Botley pours water into a cooking pot from a plastic bottle as he helps his mother to cook. Jackson, Mississippi, United States. Credit: Reuters/Carlos Barria.

I ask Gino Womack, programme manager of the community-based organization Operation Good, what a typical day has been like since the outbreak of the Jackson water crisis. Womack responds wearily, ‘The day starts the day before.’ Operation Good is a non-profit organization founded in 2013 aimed at helping to improve the social, educational, economic and political conditions of impoverished areas in Jackson and its surroundings. Since the start of the water crisis, Operation Good has been at the forefront of a water distribution campaign that seeks to address water access issues affecting local communities across Jackson.  

‘At the beginning of this crisis, we would get water in the form of donations,’ Womack explains, ‘allowing us to set up water distribution points. Then, we would notify the public to ensure residents who needed clean drinking water received it when the water pressure was low.’ Womack continues, ‘Last time the pipes busted, donations were far lower than the previous summer. We are running out of water now. We need much more water to meet the community’s supply needs.’

‘We spend so much money on wars abroad, but still, we can’t get clean water here at home.’

When the crisis broke out in August 2022, Womack was dismayed to discover that many senior citizens in his city had no access to water. ‘We had elderly people who were on medication but could not take it in the nursing homes, in their houses, because of lack of water. In one nursing home we went to – the elderly had not taken their medicine for three days because they did not have any water. We took it upon ourselves to make water deliveries to our most vulnerable population so that they could meet their basic needs.’

Frequent line breaks, shut-offs, boil water notices, toxic lead and harmful bacteria impact water availability. Womack tells me that Jackson residents fear drinking the water, even when the water pressure is up. This is mainly due to the toxins in the water supply, especially lead. The city is currently facing multiple lawsuits from civilians who claim they have been affected by lead poisoning. 

Santonia Matthews, a custodian at Forest Hill High School in Jackson, hauls away a trash can filled with non-potable water from a tanker in the school’s parking lot, one of two placed strategically in the city to provide residents with water. Jackson, Mississippi, United States. Credit: Rogelio V. Solis/ Associated Press/Alamy Stock Photo.

Adding to the financial strain of an already economically burdened demographic is the fact that the water meters and the billing system, installed by German technology company Siemens as part of a US$91 million contract in 2012, are faulty. Meters are not linked up to the billing system, which has resulted in mismeasured usage as well as the overcharging of many customers. It also means that many residents go months without billing, only finally to receive exorbitant bills. Officials also cite theft among residents and corrupt city workers as additional obstacles to the solution of this crisis.  

Because the areas most affected by the water crisis in Jackson tend to be the most impoverished, economic crisis goes hand in hand with water shortage in this part of Mississippi. Along with inflation, many Black communities in Jackson require financial support to buy water. Financial aid has yet to be made readily available by state bodies or the central government. The financial strain is compounded by workers losing their jobs in shops and restaurants due to the water crisis, as well as parents being put in the difficult position of having to choose between jobs or leaving their children at home when schools shut down due to water issues. Some residents even risk going into debt if renting a hotel room means that they can have a shower.  

In sum, the worsening economic conditions caused by water shortages and the need to purchase water drive subsidiary social problems in Jackson, not least aggravating crime and insecurity. Womack explains: ‘[Operation Good] tries to ensure we can cover people’s basic needs, hoping that that will stop the robbing and the robbing leading to the killing.’ His voice is hurt when he confides, ‘We spend so much money on wars abroad, but still, we can’t get clean water here at home.’

Photo: A volunteer helping to carry bottles of water at a water distribution site during an emergency distribution of bottled water and tanker trucks for 180,000 people. Jackson, Mississippi, United States. Credit: Reuters/Carlos Barria.

This chapter is part of our ‘Minority and Indigenous Trends 2023: Focus on Water’ flagship report. Discover all chapters >

Author(s)

Leslie-Ann Brown