A Black woman with cropped hair drinking a glass of water and looking off into the distance.
Image credit: Jacob Wackerhausen on istock.com

The ongoing water crisis in Jackson, MS, is about the lack of access to clean water and the way a community’s health and wellbeing are impacted when this vital resource is unavailable, but there are other crucial factors at play. The water crisis in Jackson is also part of a larger set of interconnected injustices that reveal the complexity of environmental racism.

The changing demographics of Jackson are intricately connected to generations of neglect and infrastructure disinvestment by Mississippi politicians and policymakers. During the 1970s, federal spending on water utilities hit its apex at more than 30 percent of the total long-term investments made in Jackson. However, due to precipitous White flight from 1980 to 1990, Whites went from making up almost half of the city’s population to a little more than a quarter. Today, this majority-Black city, where Black people make up more than 80 percent of the total population, is a battleground where residents are forced to fight for their basic human and civil right to clean water.

The Connection between Poor Water Quality and Health Disparities

Jackson has been under a federal consent decree for violating the Clean Water Act since 2012. In that same year, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found the city had at least 2,300 unauthorized sanitary sewer overflows in the previous five years. Line breaks, shutoffs, and boil water notices have become commonplace, and the city has endured two major water shortages. One of the shortages occurred in 2020 and another in 2022; each affected more than 100,000 residents, leaving them without safe water for drinking, bathing, flushing toilets, and other essential daily activities.

According to an article in the New England Journal of Medicine, brown and rusty water exposed Jackson residents to toxic lead. For adults, lead exposure can lead to painful skin irritation, heart problems, infertility, seizures, and coma. But lead exposure is particularly harmful for children, in whom it can cause speech and developmental delays, hyperactivity, rashes, and neurologic problems.

An even more complicated story of corrosive politics, exploitation, and mismanagement began to emerge.

The harmful bacteria, Escherichia coli, commonly referred to as E. coli, was behind Jackson’s boil water notices. E. coli, a fecal indicator bacteria, is often found when waterbodies contain untreated sewage. Exposure can result in gastrointestinal disease; in some cases, especially among vulnerable populations like children and older adults, it has been linked to a life-threatening form of kidney failure called hemolytic uremic syndrome.

Though racial health disparities exist throughout the United States, in Mississippi the difference among racial groups is staggering. University of Mississippi professors Meagen Rosenthal and Anne Cafer explain that Black Americans are more likely to lack health insurance, a regular source of healthcare, or both. Perhaps even more concerning, of those who do not have insurance, nearly half have a chronic condition.

For the people of Jackson, the environmental hazards residents are still subjected to, their general lack of healthcare coverage and access, and the prevalence of chronic conditions throughout Mississippi have led to a devastating compounding of health inequities.

Power and Politics in the Fight to Control Jackson’s Water

In the wake of the water crises, the ongoing policy and management issues surrounding water use in Jackson kept the town in national headlines for more than a year. As more reporting and opinion pieces on Jackson were published, it became clear that the story wasn’t just about access to clean water and the attending health impacts. An even more complicated story of corrosive politics, exploitation, and mismanagement began to emerge. 

The toxicity of Jackson’s water was met with an equally toxic political landscape. For the last few years, there have been major clashes between Mississippi’s state government and its majority-Black capital city. The mayor of Jackson, Chokwe Antar Lumumba, has put forward proposals to maintain the city’s control over its own water supply. Yet, despite the mayor’s efforts to create a path for continued city governance, his pleas have gone unheard. Instead, it looks as though the management and administrative duties associated with Jackson’s water are likely to become privatized. Consequently, Jackson is now on the path to joining the Michigan cities of Detroit, Flint, and Benton Harbor as yet another majority-Black city stripped of the authority to manage its own water system.

Though Jackson could have accessed millions of dollars in federal funding through the American Rescue Plan Act, the city has had issues with how the state allocated and dispersed funds, which led the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) to file a complaint alleging discrimination in 2023. According to the SPLC, despite the severity and length of Jackson’s water crisis, the city is unable to access federal relief funds because of obstacles set up by the Mississippi Legislature.

Jackson is now on the path to joining…Detroit, Flint, and Benton Harbor as yet another majority-Black city stripped of the authority to manage its own water system.

Jackson’s difficulty accessing the funds needed to provide aid to its residents and begin repairing the infrastructure failures that led to this crisis calls critical attention to the need for the equitable distribution of funding at all levels of government. Until there is distributive justice in how funds are allocated, communities that need funding most will be unlikely to receive their fair share. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, for instance, has committed $55 billion to support city water systems. Unfortunately, Jackson could still be left wanting because states have the authority to redirect funding away from places with dire needs and allocate money to more affluent communities.

According to reporting from the New York Times, another factor helped cripple the city’s ability to manage its own water source: a regrettable investment in faulty “smart” water meters. More than a decade ago, Siemens and other companies began selling underresourced and economically disenfranchised towns smart meters to replace outdated water meters. But the meters didn’t work. They failed to detect any water usage from some residents while detecting exorbitant levels from others that city officials thought to be implausible, so the city of Jackson was forced to stop collections for water bills.

Siemens returned the $90 million it had been paid for the project. But the damage was done. Jackson was out more than $450 million in fees and lost revenue that further prevented the city from repairing the leaky pipes and other failing equipment that plagued its water system.

Why Privatization Is Problematic

The privatization of a utility necessary for sustaining life places the profit motive at odds with basic human rights. Due to the economic landscape in Jackson, there is concern over which residents will bear the burden of financing the city’s water woes, especially since roughly 25 percent of Jackson’s population lives at or below the poverty line—more than twice that of the national poverty rate at about 11 percent. Partially as a consequence of the Siemens deal and staffing shortages in the billing department, water bills in Jackson are nonsensical, with some receiving very high bills and others receiving none at all. Inconsistent and unreliable billing aside, many of the city’s residents are paying inflated rates for water that’s unsafe to drink. Ultimately, the structural and administrative failures that created Jackson’s water crisis illustrate why clean water shouldn’t be treated like a pay-as-you-go commodity; and why water management shouldn’t be surrendered to private providers who may put short-term profits ahead of long-term infrastructure needs.

Many Black, Indigenous, and Latinx populations have reason not to trust the availability and safety of water in their communities.

Privatization of a municipal water source can also heighten safety concerns since it essentially creates a financial incentive to publicly assure residents that their water supply is safe, even when it isn’t. The tension between encouraging water usage and ensuring safe water consumption in Jackson erupted when a third party put in place to manage the city’s water declared Jackson’s water safe to drink despite reports to the contrary by the Mississippi Department of Health.

Recent developments in Jackson hint at a concerning interplay between the water crisis and the racial injustices surrounding Jackson’s criminal justice system. According to the Nation, there are plans to find and prosecute people who utilize Jackson’s water without paying for it. JXN Water, the Mississippi corporation currently responsible for conducting business related to the city’s water management, has obtained a judicial order to force Jackson’s local electric utility to turn over its records. Their objective is likely to identify homes that are paying for electricity but not paying for water, and then go after these households on the assumption that they are stealing water. This effort, the Nation argues, is creating another pipeline to criminalization.

Safeguarding At-Risk Communities

Despite the laws and regulations that protect water supplies throughout the United States, environmental racism—defined by sociologist Robert Bullard as “any policy, practice, or directive that differentially affects or disadvantages (where intended or unintended) individuals, groups, or communities based on race”—remains a persistent reality. Decades, sometimes even centuries, of disinvestment in majority-minority communities has led to the erosion of these community’s asset values and tax base, leading to a crumbling infrastructure that endangers the water supply. Sadly, because of these trends, many Black, Indigenous, and Latinx populations have reason not to trust the availability and safety of water in their communities.

We should not normalize the disinvestment and disenfranchisement of communities of color who deserve access to water that is free of pollution and contaminants. By better understanding the practices and policy failures that culminated in an environmental health disaster in Jackson, we can help safeguard other vulnerable communities.

One of the most powerful ways to do this is to build political and economic power at the community level and within local governments. Organizing and capacity building at the local level allows communities to hold the federal government, state governments, and business leaders accountable for honoring the rights of all people to clean water and healthy communities.

Communities and community-led groups can also take the lead in remedying exposure to environmental health hazards in the face of threats to their health and wellbeing—community-led water monitoring and the utilization of low-cost filtration systems are among the strategies that have shown promise. This can help historically marginalized communities pursue sustainable ways to remedy the ongoing burden created by poor water infrastructure.

Fighting against environmental racism means fighting against the entrenched structures and systems of oppression that created these disparities and sustain them. By building political and economic power at the local level, we create space for communities to take a leading role in the decision-making processes regarding the policies that shape where they live.