Access to clean and reliable water is something that we often take for granted. However, for the approximately 150,000 residents of Jackson, Mississippi, clean water is not a guarantee. This summer, the city’s long-struggling water system broke down, leaving the city without safe running water for even basic services to this day. The crisis in this overwhelmingly African American city serves as a stark reminder of the disproportionate impact of infrastructure issues on communities of Color and how governments often fail to provide basic services to their most vulnerable residents. The situation in Jackson also reminds us of Michigan’s water issues, where communities like Flint and Benton Harbor have had to continually fight for the fundamental right to clean water, a fight they have still yet to win.
The current water crisis in Jackson started in August when torrential rains caused major flooding of the Pearl River, which runs through the city. The flooding decreased the water quality going into the city’s main water treatment plant, which put a major strain on the plant. Soon there were concerns about low water pressure and the possible growth of harmful bacteria. Backup water treatment plants and secondary pumps also failed across the city. This catastrophic failure of the system led to many residents having no running water for several days, and a warning from the governor that they would not have water for even basic services like fighting fires and plumbing.
Eventually, water services were restored, but the water quality was severely diminished. For months, residents were told they had to boil water before using it, even for basic actions like brushing their teeth. Long lines formed at National Guard water bottle giveaway sites as Jackson residents struggled to obtain clean water. Eventually, water service was restored and the boil water notice was lifted, but many residents are still understandably extremely wary about drinking the water. The city still recommends that young children and pregnant women not drink the water because of possible lead exposure, showing that the larger issues about water quality are ongoing. Many residents have also reported water quality issues, with images of foul-colored water going viral on social media.
The issues plaguing Jackson’s water supply are not new. The city’s entire municipal water system has long been plagued with issues, including over 300 boil water notices over the past two years because of concerns of E. coli and other bacteria in the water. The water system has been deteriorating for years due to mismanagement, underinvestment and the shrinking of the city’s population. Like many other urban cities, such as Detroit and Flint, Jackson has faced continued population decreases. The decreasing population has led to a shrinking tax base, making it hard to maintain a water system that includes pipes that are over 100 years old.
It is impossible to look at the situation in Jackson and not recognize the clear issue of racial inequities. Jackson is an overwhelmingly majority-minority city where 80% of the residents are Black. It is also a city that experiences poverty at a higher rate than the rest of the nation. The median household income is about $40,000, which is $25,000 less than the median income nationwide, and 25% of the residents of the city live in poverty.
Communities of Color are often most impacted by structural inequities in our nation’s infrastructure. A recent investigation of Chicago’s tap water found that the majority of Black and Hispanic neighborhoods had higher levels of lead in their water than white neighborhoods. In the predominantly white suburbs of Jackson there are no water access issues, as these residents have newer water treatment plants.
Jackson also faces the unfortunate reality of being in the deep red state of Mississippi. For years, Republican administrations in Mississippi have promoted the idea of small government by turning down federal dollars and voting for low taxes and low public investment. In 2022, the state legislature did not approve a bill that would have authorized $4 million in bonds for Jackson water and sewer improvements. A separate proposal that sought to increase the sales tax by 1% in order to fund infrastructure improvements also died in the state legislature. It is worth noting that there have been many issues under the Democratic leadership of the city for decades with regard to the water system; however, the problem of infrastructure spending is something that is dealt with primarily on the state level.
This situation also demonstrates the impact of climate change on our nation’s infrastructure. As was seen in Jackson, climate change caused- issues such as intense flooding can have a major impact on already struggling infrastructure and disproportionately impact communities of Color. With more and more “historic and unprecedented” weather events happening, we will see more of our infrastructure unable to survive our changing climate. If we do not take meaningful steps to address the climate crisis, we will continue to have these dangerous and disruptive infrastructure issues.
The situation in Jackon hits close to home here in Michigan, where we have seen major lead issues in the water supplies of both Flint and Benton Harbor. The story of these cities is so similar, where communities are left behind and denied access to clean water. It is critical that people continue to shine a light on the situation in Jackson so that this vulnerable community is not left behind.
Isabelle Schindler is an Opinion Columnist & can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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