Healthy Body

No Water Coming from the Taps, Can’t Flush Toilets, Boiling for Safety—The Water Emergency Happening in Jackson, Mississippi, Is a Huge Health Crisis

Photo: Getty Images/Brad Vest Stringer
More than 2 million Americans live without safe drinking water and sanitation. In Jackson, Mississippi, that lack of access is finally coming to a head. The city—home to about about 150,000 people—has been without tap water, access to sanitation, or even the ability to flush toilets after a storm cut off access to safe drinking water last week.

The citizens of the Mississippi's capitol—a predominantly Black population—are no strangers to the daily challenges of unreliable water access. Interruptions to their water supply and "boil water" advisories over contaminants like lead and E. coli bacteria caused by aging infrastructure are very common. The Clarion Ledger, a daily newspaper in Jackson, reported that two-thirds of all water samples taken in the city since 2015 have contained at least small amounts of lead. Plus, in the first quarter of 2020, about half a billion gallons of raw sewage leaked into Pearl River, one of the major sources of drinking water for those who live in the metropolitan city.

The current water emergency in Jackson is the result of torrential summer rains that caused the Pearl River to swell to about 35 feet high. Per NPR, Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba said that the storm has posed a challenge to the city's water treatment center, O.B. Curtis Water Plant. However, in the month leading up to the flooding, Jackson residents were already under strict instructions to boil their water (meaning this crisis can't be blamed on the flooding alone). And in 2020, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) even issued an emergency order warning that the water system in Jackson posed "an imminent and substantial endangerment" to residents—prescient, given that residents of the city were without drinking water for over a month in early 2021.

"It was 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 told reporters this week. "Until it is fixed, it means we do not have reliable running water at scale... It means the city cannot produce enough water to fight fires, to reliably flush toilets, and to meet other critical needs."

A peek at Jackson's infrastructure reveals why these issues have been going on for years. The city's water system is in abysmal shape and over a century old—and is in desperate need of repair. The city's tax base has been shrinking in population since the 1980s as people have left the city, per NPR. And thus, there are 20 percent fewer people to source taxes that could ultimately rebuild the system—posing a huge funding issue for Jackson.

However, this water emergency is hardly the fault of the people living in Jackson. While the city has made efforts to overhaul the system with a $90 million plan with Siemens (a private infrastructure company) to upgrade sewer lines and make other key changes back in 2013, a botched installation led to some residents overpaying for water while others paid none at all. In the end, Jackson served Siemens with a massive lawsuit, and Jackson's water troubles persisted.

More recently, Jackson has tried to secure funding at the state level to redo its infrastructure. However, these efforts failed in the hands of Republican lawmakers. (A special fund was established, but no money was allocated to it.) Meanwhile, on a federal level, Mississippi has received $75 million from the bipartisan infrastructure bill signed by President Biden in 2021. However, this money is for the entire state, not just the capitol, and represents a mere fraction of what Jackson will need to rebuild its water system. According to Mayor Lumumba, redoing the city's water infrastructure could cost as much as $2 billion. And, so far, there's no plan for where to source that money.

"It's racist," Mayor Lumumba said about the Mississippi state legislature's failure to provide funding to Jackson in an interview with Mississippi Today. He called out the state's willingness to give millions to fund a golf course but not to help address the city's water infrastructure. "We’re left at the end of the day with a huge disparity between how Jackson has fared in terms of the resources we have received from the state."

The crisis in Jackson is just the latest example of a larger racial equity issue in this country. "The water crisis in Jackson is just the most recent example of an underreported national problem," wrote Andrew Lee, a journalist with Antiracism Daily, a daily newsletter for "anti-racism education and action. Lee pointed out out that clean water is inarguably parceled out in this country depending on your race and class. "Native American families are almost 20 times more likely than white families to lack plumbing. Over one in ten rural residents have problems with their sewage. A national review found that 'race is the stronger predictor of water and sanitation access,' and the 'key obstacle' to water access is poverty," he wrote.

In order to support the citizens of Jackson and take action to help all those in America without access to clean drinking water, now is the time to support local and national organizations fighting for this basic human right. Below, find a list of folks pitching in to address the racial disparities at play in the conversation around water.

3 organizations to support right now to help the Jackson, Mississippi water emergency

1. Cooperation Jackson

Cooperation Jackson is a citizen-led group "building a solidarity economy in Jackson, Mississippi, anchored by a network of cooperatives and worker-owned, democratically self-managed enterprises." Right now, the organization has turned its focus on the water crisis and is distributing water in Jackson, at Ida B. Wells Plaza.

Donate now.

2. Mississippi Rapid Response Coalition Water Fund

This coalition has a goal of raising at least $2 million to provide clean water for Mississippi residents while the state works out its infrastructure issues. They're also distributing free water all week.

Donate now.

3. MS Student Water Crisis Advocacy Team

Specifically helping people with disabilities who can't go to the store to pick up water, the MS Student Water Crisis Advocacy Team is currently accepting donations at the account $JxnWaterCrisis22 via Cashapp.

Donate now.

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