The Jackson Water Crisis Is a Disaster Created by Austerity

Jackson, Mississippi’s water crisis is an omen of climate disasters to come. But August floods were only the straw that broke the Jackson water system’s back. More fundamentally, the crisis is the result of decades of disinvestment and austerity.

The Salvation Army of Jackson and Walmart distribute bottled water in Jackson, Mississippi on August 31, 2022. (Brad Vest / Getty Images)

After a crisis which left 150,000 residents without drinking water for weeks, water pressure in Jackson, Mississippi is back as of Monday. But safe, clean drinking water remains elusive, and it’s unclear when that will change.

The head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) says it’s still too soon to declare the crisis over, and the city warned of “additional challenges” on the horizon. Jackson residents are still under the same boil-water advisory implemented in late July. For over a month, faucets have gushed a cloudy, discolored liquid that’s unsafe for drinking and cooking. Health officials told residents they could take a shower with the tainted water — albeit with mouths shut so as not to swallow it accidentally.

“It’s like we’re living in a nightmare right now,” a local high school sophomore told CNN.

The crisis was kicked off when heavy rain flooded the Pearl River and knocked out the pumps at Jackson, Mississippi’s water treatment facility for a week. Many commentators have rightly focused on climate change, identifying Jackson as a sign of disasters to come when increasingly extreme weather inevitably damages core infrastructure. But Jackson’s water problems can’t be blamed on the climate crisis alone. They’re also the result of decades of disinvestment, dysfunction, and systemic racism at every level of government.

“Deliberate Indifference”

Jackson’s mayors and city council have called for repairs on roughly fifteen hundred miles of century-old water mains off and on since the 1940s, according to Jackson’s Clarion Ledger. Back in 1978, the Environmental Protection Agency ((EPA) warned city leaders that significant improvements to the water infrastructure were needed. Yet decades of white flight and capital disinvestment from Mississippi’s capital city — now 82 percent black with a poverty rate of 25 percent — reduced the revenue officials say the water system needed to maintain full operations. An estimated $1 billion worth of necessary upgrade requests went unfulfilled.

Consequently many Jacksonians have lacked clean drinking water for years. The EPA first reported high lead levels in the city’s tap water in 2015. Since then, local officials have advised pregnant women and children under five not to drink from the tap. The lead issue has not yet been properly addressed, nor have many of the two dozen violations of the Safe Drinking Water Act that the EPA has issued over the past eight years.

Last year, two lawsuits were filed in federal court over Jackson’s lead level, with one suit alleging that the city of Jackson and the state’s Health Department made “conscience-shocking decisions and have shown deliberate indifference that has led to Plaintiffs’ exposure to toxic lead in Jackson’s drinking water.”

The lines were said to be as fragile as “peanut brittle” a year and a half ago, a time when most residents lost access to running water during back-to-back wintery storms. While the nation was panicking over the arrival of COVID-19 in February of 2020, roughly forty-three thousand Jacksonians also had to deal with losing water access for more than two weeks.

“We’ve been going it alone for the better part of two years when it comes to the Jackson water crisis,” Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba said. “I have said on multiple occasions that it’s not a matter of if our system would fail, but a matter of when our system would fail.”

Build Back Never?

Residents were placed under a boil-water notice in late July. August floods only exacerbated the preexisting problems, acting as the straw that broke the camel’s back.

State and federal officials have declared a state of emergency, but aren’t taking any responsibility for years of inaction as the crisis unfolded in plain sight. Last year, two bills designed to raise money for water system repairs died in the legislature. In 2020, Mississippi governor Tate Reeves, a Republican, vetoed legislation meant to assist residents struggling to pay overdue water bills, which would have in turn delivered the city much-needed revenue. Reeves instead passed the state’s largest-ever tax cut in the nation’s poorest state.

“We’re facing an environmental injustice, and we have been ignored,” said Maisie Brown, a community activist and organizer in Jackson. “Jacksonians and people around the area have been ignored by state leadership, and now they want to swoop in — all hands on deck, fixing the problem — but we’ve been asking for help for years, not even just from this administration,”

Help is coming but it’s not enough. The state is receiving $429 million from Joe Biden’s $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill for water system repairs. But that money that will be spread throughout the state and won’t begin to cover the $1 billion estimated to fix Jackson’s ailing water systems. The federal government even bungled the effort to pass out water bottles: residents were seen waiting in mile-long lines at Hawkins Field Airport for hours last Tuesday to get just one case of bottled water. When the seven hundred cases of water ran out, many Jacksonians were eventually turned away.

It’s true that Jackson’s crisis is a sign of things to come if we don’t halt climate change and ward off extreme weather. But pinning Jackson’s problems on the August floods is the equivalent of pinning the Titanic disaster on the iceberg. Jackson’s water woes aren’t an act of God. They’re a manmade disaster happening in slow motion.