The Water Crisis in Jackson Was Years in the Making

two people handling a case of bottled water

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How decades of neglect and white flight contributed to Jackson’s water crisis.

The water’s finally running again in Jackson, Miss. — but for now, it’s still undrinkable. We’re taking a closer look at the crisis and what it says about our country’s aging infrastructure. 

The situation

Flooding late last month overwhelmed the city’s main water treatment plant, leaving 160,000 residents without safe running water. The water pressure was so low in many households that they couldn’t use their toilets and hardly anything ran from their taps, while in some parts of the city brown water flowed from faucets.

Water pressure was restored last week, but it has not yet been deemed safe to drink without being boiled first. Officials are in the process of testing water quality across the city. 

A longstanding issue

Sadly, the people of Jackson are quite familiar with water emergencies. During last year’s freeze, residents were left without running water for weeks. The city’s lead pipes are also thought to have polluted the water, possibly harming thousands, an issue that is at the center of a recent lawsuit

The current crisis is the result of decades of neglect, Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba tells ABC, and Jackson’s run-down water treatment system desperately needs an upgrade. Federal and local officials are demanding that the city create a plan for overhauling the water system, the Guardian reports, which is estimated to cost more than $1 billion. 

Focus on systemic racism

Jackson is a predominantly Black city and its water treatment system has suffered from years of underinvestment — especially since the white flight that began in the 1970s, Heather McTeer Toney, a former EPA administrator tells Inside Climate News. That exodus away from Jackson’s urban center and into surrounding suburbs has eroded the city’s tax base and made it hard for the city to afford repairs or access federal funding, she said. 

“We certainly have been a victim of systemic and structural racism in the city of Jackson. And I don’t think it’s unique to Jackson. I think it’s true of majority-minority cities across the South,” a Mississippi legislator representing Jackson told the Washington Post.

An ABC analysis of Census Bureau data also found that many of the regions currently struggling with poor water access are in mostly Black or Hispanic communities — from Benton Harbor, Michigan which has found lead in its drinking supply to parts of Baltimore. This (and issues like the Flint water crisis) illustrate what’s known as environmental racism — the concept that minority enclaves are often disproportionately harmed by policies on issues like pollution and housing.

How you can help

Many residents are still relying on bottled water to drink or cook, and some have waited hours in line for a case of water. A handful of organizations are collecting donations to help ease the water shortage. The Helping Friends and Neighbors Fund at the Community Foundation for Mississippi is assisting with local relief efforts and The Mississippi Rapid Response Coalition is looking to raise $2 million to provide clean water for residents.