The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The Mississippi water crisis is the tip of the global disaster to come

Jim Craig of the Mississippi State Department of Health, left, leads Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba, right, Deanne Criswell, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), center, and Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves, rear, past sedimentation basins at the City of Jackson's O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Facility in Ridgeland, Miss., on Sept. 2. (Rogelio V. Solis/AP)

Addressing the U.N. General Assembly last week, Secretary General António Guterres called the climate crisis “our suicidal war against nature.” That war’s devastation can be seen in Jackson, Miss., where four residents have filed a lawsuit against the city for failing to protect the water supply from extreme weather events.

Jackson’s water crisis has been rightly described as a “climate justice wake-up call.” Decades of neglect led to a deteriorating water system that reached a breaking point this summer. When torrential rains caused a flood near Jackson’s largest water treatment plant in August — coming on top of staffing shortages and equipment failures — a major pump was damaged, a chemical imbalance was created, and the plant shut down. With that, the city of more than 160,000 residents lost access to safe drinking water. Though a boil-water advisory was recently lifted after six weeks, the crisis is far from over. Jackson has faced recurring disruptions, and the underlying causes have not been addressed.

Racism is one of those causes. Jackson’s population is 83 percent Black, and communities of color have long been likelier victims of drinking water violations in the United States. When Jackson’s water shut off, the water in nearby majority-White suburbs stayed on and stayed clean, because those suburbs — whose populations and coffers have swelled because of white flight from the city — are served by newer, better water treatment plants. “You cannot define structural racism any more clearly than the infrastructure management in this country,” says Brookings Institution fellow Andre Perry. Differing investments in local water systems “literally lay the groundwork for racial disparities.”

What’s happening in Jackson echoes previous disasters in Flint, Mich., and Newark and is accompanied by other ongoing crises that disproportionately affect people of color. A recent investigation of Chicago’s tap water found that 1 in 20 homes tested had lead levels above the federal limit — with the highest found in majority-Black and -Hispanic neighborhoods. And in Nevada, an increasing number of Native American households lack any indoor plumbing.

Americans are living on the carcass of an infrastructure — built during the New Deal by the Works Progress Administration — that has never gotten the reinvestment it needs. The American Society of Civil Engineers gives America’s drinking water infrastructure a C-minus. And climate-driven extreme weather will put it through its toughest test.

Yet our leaders consistently fail to properly acknowledge this emergency. Instead, we’ve seen craven politicians duck responsibility and attempt to score political points at the expense of constituents and mayors desperate for resources. Former Michigan governor Rick Snyder has been charged with willful neglect of duty for redirecting Flint’s water supply to the Flint River without proper treatment — the catalyst for that city’s crisis. And while residents of Jackson used bottled water to bathe their children, Gov. Tate Reeves (R) joked to a crowd elsewhere in Mississippi that it was, “as always, a great day to not be in Jackson.”

Such negligence has catastrophic consequences. Though President Biden’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act includes more than $50 billion for water infrastructure, it won’t be enough to make up for decades of mismanagement. In Jackson alone, it could cost $1 billion to repair the water distribution system, and billions more to upgrade it. Unless we act now, the gap between money invested and money needed for water infrastructure will grow to $434 billion by 2029.

Globally, climate change will worsen our existing water crises — and create new ones. One in 10 people on Earth already lacks access to clean water sources within 30 minutes of home, and when more sources dry up, we could see water wars, mass migrations and horrific suffering. All told, the United Nations estimates that water scarcity could displace 700 million people by 2030. We need the leaders who talked about the climate crisis at the U.N. last week to deliver significant global action so that vulnerable people, who have done the least to cause the climate crisis, don’t suffer its worst effects.

This global investment must also be matched with investment at home — at the federal, state and local levels — to build resilience in our communities. Mississippi’s journalists and activists are keeping the pressure up. The team covering Jackson’s water crisis at Mississippi Today, led by Alex Rozier, just won the September Sidney Award for their extraordinary work illuminating the crisis. And Monday, the Poor People’s Campaign — co-chaired by Bishop William J. Barber II and Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis — led a “Moral Monday march” to raise awareness of Jackson’s crisis.

In an interview with the Southern Poverty Law Center, one Jackson woman described how her tap water had been unusable even before the latest crisis, with her doctor warning against giving it to her young children. Visiting family out of town, she and her kids were shocked to learn they could use water from the tap to brush their teeth. “We deserve,” she said, “to live like everyone else in the United States.”

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