Metropolis

Ignore Mississippi’s Water Crisis at Your Own Peril

A gloved hand holds a gallon of water.
A volunteer grabs a gallon of water at a water and food distribution drive on March 7 in Jackson, Mississippi. Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

For four weeks now, thousands of residents of Jackson, Mississippi, have had no potable water. Even though repairs are underway for dozens of broken water mains and other equipment, the city’s 161,000 residents remain under a boil-water advisory, and hundreds still have no running water at all. The story is similar to ones we’ve heard before: thousands of mostly Black residents struggling to carry on without access to the most essential of necessities; a decades-old, multibillion-dollar water system in desperate need of major repair; proposed funding solutions that don’t go nearly far enough. But what separates Jackson from other ongoing municipal water crises nationwide, and worldwide, is its particular catalyst and the aftereffects.

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The water crises that captured the most headlines in recent years were the result of governmental and corporate malpractice. Cities like Flint, Michigan—which is still grappling with lead-contaminated water—and Summerville, Georgia, saw their drinking water become unsafe after those in power tried to skirt regulations or save a few bucks. But Jackson was hit by a different kind of beast, one that threatens us all: a government unprepared to handle the effects of climate change and neglectful of the citizens who are most harmed by it.

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The same storms that capsized Texas’ power grid in February also dumped unprecedented amounts of snow throughout the South. Virginia, Louisiana, Tennessee, and Mississippi all had energy or water stoppages, or both, as a result. Water mains were damaged, reservoirs froze, and residents had to leave their faucets running to prevent pipes from bursting. In Jackson alone, about 80 water mains broke. But by late February, as safe water began flowing back to the hard-hit South, Jackson’s leaders kept pushing back their own projected deadlines for potable water restoration, and Gov. Tate Reeves briefly pondered a state takeover of the city’s water system. Though thousands of Texans are still struggling with their own busted pipes, its water treatment plants could at least resume operations following power restoration. In Jackson, the damage was even deeper.

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Mississippi is the most impoverished state in the country; it’s also among the sickest and most publicly underfunded, with hospitals, schools, and other public services unable to properly serve residents, even when they aren’t being pummeled by storms. City workers tasked with repairing the water system have noted that some parts of it are a century old, and that the parts that aren’t nearly as ancient are quite brittle. The storms also directly maimed necessary equipment for the water treatment plants, hurting the purifying process even after power came back. The city’s O.B. Curtis Plant saw its intake screens freeze and raw water pumps malfunction while its feeder reservoir dropped in temperature. Drivers couldn’t deliver needed treatment chemicals to the plant for a while because of the icy, broken roads. Add that to a recent history of poor disaster management: In 2015, then–Jackson Mayor Tony Yarber declared two separate states of emergency for the city’s infrastructure, citing water mains and roads that were cracking under pressure from more mild winter weather. It was a unique order that could have spurred much-needed repairs, but the City Council overturned the second emergency order, and only a few fixes funded by state aid were eventually made in the following years. For this more recent disaster, it was only last week that the city signed off on a request to the state to provide $47 million for repairs.

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Usually, water crises fueled by climate change are most visibly perceived in the form of droughts, groundwater depletion, sea level rise, or historic flooding. In Jackson, the water crisis stemmed from a bureaucratic infrastructure issue: the vulnerability of essential water treatment plants to unprecedented storms that are growing in frequency. In the same way Texas’ energy troubles demonstrated the need to mandate power grid winterization, Jackson’s emergency shows how our officials must work to protect the thing most of us take completely for granted. But that will also cost a lot of money and require major reform. If the Democratic-dominated federal government is already having issues figuring out national infrastructure priorities, the hard-right Mississippi Legislature certainly won’t fulfill its own state’s needs. More than likely, your city or state is facing similar woes.

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These problems will play out first, though, in places struggling most with poverty and racism. Jackson’s population is 82 percent Black, and despite being the state’s capital and most populous metropolis, it suffers from a meager tax base, as its wealthier white residents fled the city in increasing numbers following the civil rights era; about a quarter of the city lives in poverty. Jackson’s Black leaders have long been aware of the issues plaguing their city and tried to do what they can to solve them, only to be rebuffed time and again by the mostly white and Republican state government. Climate change will only exacerbate such inequalities.

Not every American city has the same forces working against it as Jackson does, but the problems occurring there will also happen elsewhere. Many Americans have been lucky to have stable shelter, power, water, and protection against the coronavirus throughout the past year. But that’s all that is—luck. Unless governments take the appropriate response to heavily bolster our infrastructure and protect our most vulnerable, there’s no reason to think anybody will be so fortunate to escape unscathed the next time the storms come around. Jackson’s suffering residents know this all too well.

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