The Jackson Water Crisis: A Relic of Environmental Racism?

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Photo via Getty Images

By Kiyana Patel

Jackson, MS. —A weather-related calamity has shut off the water taps for many Jackson, Mississippi, households for the second time in a year, creating an environmental justice issue that serves as a reminder of the endurance of racism. 

 

Local health officials first warned that the city’s water supply was hazy at the end of July and asked Jackson residents to begin boiling their water. The already-dangerous situation worsened when a nearby river flooded, causing problems at the OB Curtis Water Plant. The flood resulted in the Aug. 29 failure of Jackson’s main water treatment facility, leaving residents without clean water for drinking, bathing, or cooking.

 

On Aug. 30, Governor Tate Reeves declared a state of emergency. However, neither a state plan nor a timetable for when Jackson’s roughly 150,000-person population may expect the clean water scarcity to end were specified in the announcement. Instead, residents were informed that they would be without clean water “indefinitely.”

 

While Jacksonians wait for a comprehensive state plan, they must endure the lack of water pressure required to flush toilets and put out fires.

 

According to CNN reports, the situation has become so dire that the city briefly ran out of bottled water to distribute to residents, leaving them without safe drinking water, a basic human right.

 

Social media users have pointed to the city’s dearth of essential infrastructure repairs as a root cause of the water crisis. Jackson had “a decaying water system” prior to this specific problem, in part because the city lacked the necessary financing for maintenance.

 

Jackson councilman Aaron Banks agreed, explaining that when severe temperatures forced Jackson’s water treatment facility to close in 2020, his district remained without water for over six weeks—significantly longer than the neighboring areas. The city has not been able to recover since.

 

“We have not gone a month without having a ‘boil water’ notice or low to no water pressure in the last two years,” Banks says. “Unfortunately, that is something we have gotten used to as American citizens—nobody should be adapting to that type of quality of life.”

 

What is happening in Jackson—as well as in Michigan cities like Flint in 2014 where the water supply was tainted with lead—is, according to experts and advocates, a direct result of years of prejudice and segregation.

 

Though President Joe Biden passed a historic infrastructure plan which includes funding for underprivileged and underdeveloped towns such as Jackson, the funds are given by state legislators, who, according to Banks, frequently succumb to politics and prioritize projects for their constituents above addressing structural issues.

 

The councilman claims he has seen state funds go into the infrastructure of towns and areas near Jackson for years, but it hasn’t reached institutions like the city’s water treatment facility that are in dire need of it.

 

People of color have typically been the people hit hardest by underfunded infrastructure issues. 

 

More than 80% of Jackson’s population is Black, making the water crisis there a painfully obvious example of environmental racism. 

 

According to Greenaction, a nonprofit organization devoted to environmental justice projects, the term “environmental racism” is used to highlight “the disproportionate impact of environmental dangers on people of color.”

 

Part of the difficulty of addressing environmental justice is that people in positions of authority don’t understand the intersection between climate change and racism.

 

In a poll of 150 C-suite executives in the United States, the overwhelming majority agreed that businesses should address environmental justice, but they couldn’t define it. More than half of the respondents assumed the movement was about deforestation, suing businesses that have affected the environment, or achieving justice for the world. 

 

It makes sense that they didn’t believe addressing environmental justice would actually make a difference in those communities if they believe this is only about justice for plants and trees and don’t realize that climate change and pollution have disproportionately negative effects on communities of color. 

 

Nearly half of the respondents didn’t believe the environmental justice movement would improve the lives of marginalized or low-income communities.

 

Flint and Jackson are not alone in suffering from water infrastructure and environmental racism problems. Jackson is symptomatic of a growing water infrastructure catastrophe that the Associated Press predicts many U.S. cities, suburbs, and rural communities must prepare for.

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About The Author

Kiyana Patel, who moved away from home (Kenya) to pursue her future career aspirations of becoming a lawyer, is now a fourth-year senior at UCLA, majoring in Political Science and minoring in Labor Studies, and is a member of the honors society. Her community involvement is mostly centered on reforming US immigration policies and advancing social justice values in the US. She is an outspoken proponent of the undocumented immigrant population and is enthusiastic about improving immigration policies.

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2 thoughts on “The Jackson Water Crisis: A Relic of Environmental Racism?”

  1. Walter Shwe

    The Republican white power structure in Mississippi is to blame for this epic catastrophe. Federal Infrastructure Act funds in Mississippi should flow directly to the City of Jackson to address their dire predicament. You can be sure that if Jackson was predominately white this would have never have happened.

  2. Keith Olson

    The EPA warned Jackson in March of 2022 that there were problems with their staffing and maintenance of their water facility.  So this might have been more of a mayor and city staff related oversight than a problem with racism.  But as always it goes there.

    CNN reached out to the City of Jackson for comment on the report but did not immediately receive a response. At a Tuesday news conference, Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba responded to an EPA official’s comments about water department staffing, saying that he was not “abreast of all the community recruitment efforts” and that 10 individuals were training to be class water operators – it can take up to six years to finish.
    However, the mayor did not say whether the city had hired any new staff for the water department – the recommendation in the report – and instead said that the city had been transparent about staffing shortages and deferred maintenance.
    https://www.cnn.com/2022/09/02/us/jackson-mississippi-water-department/index.html

     

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