What Happened in Jackson, Mississippi, Was a Catastrophe—and a Warning Sign

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Boiling water to drink and bathe. Collecting rainwater to flush toilets. Using bottled water distributed by the National Guard to take care of basic hygiene.

For four weeks, tens of thousands of people in Jackson, Mississippi, did not have access to clean water. Freezing winter storms wreaked havoc on Jackson’s old and crumbling water infrastructure. In mid-February the city experienced 80 water main breaks, leaving tens of thousands of residents were left without running water. But while the Texas blackouts dominated the news cycle, Jackson’s water crises received far less attention, even as it extended into its fourth week. Jackson’s residents, 80 percent of whom are Black and nearly 30 percent of whom live below the poverty line, were forced to boil water to drink, bathe, and use the bathroom. In the middle of a pandemic, residents of Jackson didn’t have reliable access to clean water to wash their hands.

This water crisis was years in the making. For the past 50 years the Republican-led state government has been cutting taxes and neglecting to invest in infrastructure repairs. Jackson’s shrinking tax base has been exacerbated by white flight and the fact that, unlike other capital cities, Jackson does not receive payments in lieu of taxes for its state-owned properties.

“It isn't a matter of if these systems will fail, it's a matter of when these systems will fail,” Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba tells Mother Jones reporter Nathalie Baptiste on this week’s show. “We have a $2 billion infrastructure problem.”

Last week, Jackson finally lifted its boil water notice. But Jackson’s water crisis laid bare the budget, infrastructure, and equity issues that leave cities like Jackson vulnerable to future extreme weather events.

“Climate change is significantly impacting the pressure on our infrastructure. We have hotter summers, colder winters, and more rain in the rainy season,” says Mayor Lumumba. “They’re becoming our new normal.”

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