by Imani Stephens
This story was originally published at Prism.
A little more than a week after the mayor of Jackson, Mississippi, declared a water system emergency, leaving 180,000 people in and around the city without access to clean water, residents and volunteers are frustrated with what many say was predictable.
“The people in the city of Jackson have been concerned about this system collapsing for decades,” said Kali Akuno, the executive director of Cooperation Jackson, who has lived in the city on and off for more than 20 years.
Jackson’s 2020 Annual Drinking Water Quality Report shows the Mississippi State Department of Health cited several violations for significant deficiencies in the water system. They found the city’s water system in violation of standards for the function and condition of treatment facilities, monitoring plans and systems, and staffing and condition of source facilities, among many others.
An already fragile water system worsened following torrential rainfall, which led to a decrease in water production at the O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Plant, one of the city’s water sources. The city has two main water sources: the J.H. Fewell Water Treatment Plant, with its water intake from the Pearl River, and the O.B Curtis Water Treatment Plant, where water intake comes from the Ross Barnett Reservoir.
The Mississippi capital was under a boil water notice for a month before Gov. Tate Reeves issued a state of emergency.
“At least once or twice a month in a good year, there are boil water notices almost all throughout the city. This has been going on since the 1990s,” Akuno said.
Following several noncompliance notices from the Environmental Protection Agency, the city of Jackson and the EPA entered a Safe Drinking Water Act Administrative Order of Consent in July of 2021 to bring solutions to the long-term issues with the city’s water systems.
Due to the recent severe flood of the Pearl River, city residents have been forced to live without access to water for drinking, bathing, brushing their teeth, or flushing toilets for two weeks—and this isn’t the first time. In February 2021, thousands of residents were without any water following a historic winter storm, which led to pipes bursting and declining water pressure.
Nonprofit organizations like Cooperation Jackson have set up water distribution sites across the city for residents to receive free cases of bottled water, but the water is going fast.
“Despite all of what us and other organizations are doing, it’s insufficient. It doesn’t reach all of the people,” Akuno said.
Akuno describes the water crisis as institutional and intentional neglect.
“It just magnifies many of the contradictions that exist in our society. Who really has access? Who doesn’t? Who gets served? Who doesn’t?” Akuno added.
Given the city’s racial makeup, many critics have cited the water crisis as the latest example of environmental racism and neglect. Black people currently make up over 80% of the Jackson population, and the city has dealt with significant divestment over the years. The racial makeup of Jackson has fluctuated over the decades, which residents attribute to white flight.
Other majority Black cities have made headlines for similar issues. Baltimore, Maryland, was recently put under a boil water advisory after E. coli was found in the city’s drinking supply. Residents in Flint, Michigan, also still have concerns about water quality eight years after the city was left in crisis. Dr. Mauda Monger, who is a native of West Jackson and the founder of the SHE Project, said it’s disheartening to see Black residents in yet another city lose access to their drinking supply.
“I do not believe if this was a place where the population was heavily white or other, that it would have gotten in this bad shape,” she said.
Though sites have been set up to give residents cases of water, long lines and low supply have made it challenging. Monger, who takes care of her aging parents, said she has had to drive outside of city limits for cases of bottled water on multiple occasions.
“So many people are driving all over different parts of the city to get water,” Monger said. “You go to one site, and the water is out … We had to scramble and get six cases of water. I walked around a grocery store for 45 minutes in order to wait for them to put a pallet of water out.”
Those who are buying bottled water are adding additional expenses to their lives, in addition to paying monthly water bills.
“We’re still being charged,” Monger added. “They’re not saying we’re gonna discount your bills or anything like that.”
Monger believes the water crisis is a lesson for the government, and that officials need to take immediate action to prevent a domino effect in older cities.
“If there’s [no] funding, proper funding with oversight placed on improving and updating infrastructure, I think what has happened in Jackson, what has happened in Flint, what has happened to all of these different places, is going to continue to happen,” she said.
Water pressure in Jackson was restored late last week, but the city is still under a boil water advisory.
“It smells so bad now … [the water has] that loud odor in it from the gasses, I guess,” said Patty Patterson, a Jackson resident who was raised in Detroit. Patterson came to the city in the 1980s to attend Jackson State University and still remembers the boil water notices she received as a student. “I’m not a chemist, it just smells bad … you can smell it all through your house. You flush the toilets, you can smell it.”
Patterson wishes the messaging about using the water was clearer to residents.
“What they should’ve said up front with citizens [was] ‘Hey, don’t even put your toothbrush under the water.’ It’s a difference when you say don’t brush your teeth. That means I’m not gonna put the water in my mouth and rinse my mouth out,” Patterson said.
The city is asking residents to complete a survey if they notice low water pressure or water discoloration. The call for help has echoed throughout various organizations on the frontlines of the water crisis.
“We’ve been begging for help for the longest,” said Toni Johnson, the executive director of We Must Vote and a native of Jackson. “As a capital city, as a citizen, you shouldn’t have to beg for something that’s your fundamental right, which is clean drinking water.”
Johnson she’s been traveling along with her 11-year-old son to her mother’s home in Clinton, Mississippi, to shower, brush their teeth, and do other basic activities that require water
“To try to address this, you typically have people from the bottom, which is Jackson, our mayor, and the citizens jumping trying to pull from the top, and we’re not being successful,” Johnson said. “It really makes you second guess if living here in Mississippi is even worth it.”
Imani Stephens is a journalist from Compton, California, who gives a voice to the voiceless. She is a graduate of The Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication and the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law.
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