On August 29, a state of emergency was declared in Jackson, Mississippi after a heavy rainstorm caused catastrophic equipment failures at two water distribution plants that serve the city. For nearly seven weeks, residents of Jackson, a city whose population is 83% Black, went without enough water pressure to provide homes and businesses with service. The problem worsened when a chemical leak contaminated the city’s water. Water pressure has been restored to the city, but residents are concerned if the water is safe for their health.
“I’m still a little iffy about water,” Kimberly Owens, a mother of three living in Jackson, told NPR. “I will not be cooking and drinking with this water because I don’t feel like it’s safe enough.”
This is not the first water crisis Jackson has experienced. Just one year ago, after a winter storm, the city’s reservoir for potable water froze to a slushy mix that resulted in 80 broken water mains. Residents went weeks without water.
The water supply infrastructure was in dire need of repair for decades before these events. Jackson is not the only city with such problems.
In what have been termed sacrifice zones, cities such as Flint, Michigan have experienced high concentrations of lead in their water due to failing infrastructure. In Chicago, Illinois, 1 in 20 homes tested have lead contamination above the federal limit. An 85-mile stretch of parishes in Louisiana is referred to as Cancer Ally, where petrochemical plants have caused cancer rates to increase 16% above the national average. Sacrifice zones are typically areas that house low-income minority communities whose leaderships have disinvested taxpayer dollars from the residents. Politicians often neglect infrastructure that has not been repaired since its installment in the mid-1930s.
The Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, a conservative American think tank, says that extreme weather events, exacerbated by climate change, will create more sacrifice zones. Warmer temperatures will result in increased rainfall on the wettest days, and storm surges or river flows will compound flooding, all of which may overwhelm the water distribution infrastructure of cities like Jackson.
In response to the water crisis, Jackson residents filed a class action lawsuit against the city in mid-September. The case names government officials, public works directors, and private companies as defendants, claiming they are responsible for mismanagement and maintenance failures. It is the first such class action suit seeking relief for water contamination in the city.