Mississippi Water Crisis a Failure Decades in the Making

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Residents of the Golden Keys Senior Living apartments receive water delivered by the AIDS Healthcare Foundation in Jackson, Mississippi, September 1, 2022.
© 2022 AP Photo/Steve Helber

The United States state of Mississippi’s capital city, Jackson, is facing an unprecedented water crisis after its main water facility failed following recent flooding. While the city has cited some progress, approximately 200,000 people may be without safe, running water indefinitely. Schools have moved to virtual learning, restaurants have closed, and stores are running out of water.

This crisis may shock people around the US and the world, but not those living there. It is a failure caused by historical and racist disinvestment in the majority-Black city, and has been a long time coming.

Jackson has had four boil water advisories since June 2022, and many more in recent years. Black and brown people are expected to be hardest hit by the current crisis, as these populations live in low income areas plagued with poor water infrastructure and insufficient funding.

State officials and the National Guard are in the city distributing water, but the situation is dire. Many of those hit hard by the flooding, including about 500 immigrant households, “understandably do not trust people in uniform,” and so may be reluctant to seek out water points maintained by members of the guard, one organizer told Human Rights Watch.

Some reporting has focused on how extreme flooding, exacerbated by the climate crisis, has overwhelmed Jackson’s water system. While climate emergencies will certainly intensify in years to come, Jackson’s crisis is a human rights failure decades in the making. State officials warned last week: “The consistent delays in timely maintenance have hampered [the water facility’s] ability to properly respond to the demands placed upon it.” But resource constraints have plagued the city and its water and wastewater system, which had a weeks-long service disruption in 2021 and multiple US Environmental Protection Agency citations for dumping millions of gallons of raw sewage into source water. The water and wastewater system requires more money to repair and operate than the city can fund.

One organizer told Human Rights Watch: “The conservative white power structure in Mississippi has deliberately disinvested in the capitol city of Jackson.” It’s understandable that they would feel that way. Mississippi state has not only failed to fund infrastructure assistance to Jackson, but recently enacted a $524 million income-tax break that has constrained the state budget, including for infrastructure funds. Mississippi is already dependent on federal funds for many government functions and is likely to require much more. Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba estimates the cost to repair the systems is nearly $2 billion, while new federal infrastructure dollars to the state total $75 million.

The US has long refused to recognize water as a human right. Local grassroots organizations, including the Mississippi Rising Coalition, the Mississippi Rapid Response Coalition, Cooperation Jackson, and Immigrant Alliance for Justice & Equity, are currently on the front lines of this human rights emergency and need support. Federal and state governments should swiftly allocate resources to address the immediate needs in Jackson and invest in long-term solutions.

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