Nine rows of plastic water bottles that only show the tops are lined up in a checkerboard pattern.
Image Source: Jonathan Chng / Unsplash

A Water Emergency Downstream from a National Crisis

The United States, we’re told, is a developed country where we all can enjoy a high standard of living or, at the very least, have our basic necessities met. This framing is problematic because it leaves international poverty as a given… and because it isn’t even true. In under-resourced areas of this country, basic resources and infrastructure are unavailable to the often Black and Brown residents. Access to functional roads, nutritious food, and breathable air depends on your race, wealth, and zip code. There are also disparities in access to clean water and a working sewage system, as is evident in the water crisis in Jackson, Mississippi.  

After recurring boil-water orders for almost a year, the city’s 153,000 residents were told on Monday that the water is now unsafe to brush teeth with due to the water system failing. The Jackson water crisis is so severe that water pressure is too low to flush toilets or extinguish fires (CNBC). Though the water supply finally gave out because of flooding, the crisis was years in the making. One hundred miles of water pipes in the city are over a century old. Two-thirds of water samples taken in Jackson test positive for lead. In the first quarter of 2020, half a billion gallons of raw sewage seeped from the municipal water system into the Pearl River. That year, Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba announced that the city needed $1 billion to repair its sewer problems (Clarion Ledger). Last spring, Jackson residents were under another boil-water order after low temperatures damaged the city’s water treatment plants (NBC News).

TAKE ACTION

• Support Cooperation Jackson and the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement.

• Donate to other organizations supporting those without water: 
Immigrant Alliance for Justice and Equity MS (Venmo @IAJEofMS)
– MS Students Community Water Delivery Support (Cash App $JxnWaterCrisis22)
– Operation Good (Cash App $OperationGoodMS)

With one in four Jackson residents living in poverty, many don’t have the means to survive on bottled water. “Part of the problem is that it’s everywhere. Usually when we have an outage it’s in one neighborhood ,” said Laurie Bertram Roberts, manager of the Mississippi Reproductive Freedom Fund. “But when it’s the whole damn city, where are the Black people supposed to go? It’s not like this is everywhere; it’s where the mostly Black population in Jackson lives” (The Daily Beast).

Like many areas of the country, Jackson is starved for resources to maintain municipal infrastructure. Since “Jackson’s tax base was decimated by white flight in the 1990s,” the city can’t afford “large-scale renovations of much of anything, let alone a wholesale overhaul of its entire water system” (Esquire). The Republican-dominated legislature of Mississippi allocated a single golf course over half as much funding as they earmarked to fix their capital’s entire water system. State legislators have been in no rush to support infrastructure repair in the 79% Black city, especially under the administration of Mayor Lumumba, a member of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement and Cooperation Jackson who promotes economic justice and participatory democracy (Cooperation JacksonTruthOutClarion Ledger). “It’s racist,” says Lumumba of the state politicians who withheld aid that could have averted this week’s catastrophe (Mississippi Today).

The water crisis in Jackson is just the most recent example of an underreported national problem. Over two million Americans have neither water nor indoor plumbing, with “many more without sanitation.” Racial, class, and rural/urban disparities are clear. 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 (U.S. Water Alliance). 

“On many levels, this economic experiment that we have in this country is a failed model. And it’s a failed model in particular for oppressed people,” said Mayor Lumumba (Clarion Ledger). 

We must take action immediately to support organizations on the ground in Jackson as the current crisis drags on. The water crisis in Jackson is just a symptom of a larger democratic deficit as working-class communities of color in the U.S. are robbed of the resources and decision-making power necessary to collectively chart their future. It will take all of us fighting and backing community organizations like Cooperation Jackson and the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement to ensure that clean water is not a privilege but a right. 


KEY TAKEAWAYS

• Many poor communities of color lack access to clean water and working sewage systems. 

• The Jackson, Mississippi, water system suffered a catastrophic failure that was years in the making. 

• Sewage leaks and undrinkable water are often the result of the exploitation and disenfranchisement of poor communities.

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