Why does Jackson, Mississippi, have unsafe water?

After weeks of city-wide shut offs, water has been restored in Jackson, Mississippi. However, most of the city is still under a precautionary boil water notice — until the water is tested and determined to be safe for consumption. Residents rightly continue to be skeptical of using the water for cooking, washing, bathing. There are still areas of the city with low water pressure — a problem being attributed to their distance from water-treatment facilities.

The boil-water notice and low water pressure point to long-standing infrastructural problems in the Blackest city in the Blackest state in the country.

Jackson’s acute water crisis began with a snowstorm during the week of Feb. 15. During the storm, almost all of Jackson was without water. The freezing temperatures caused many of the city’s aging pipes to burst and the main water-treatment plant became inoperable. Parts of the city’s water system are over 100 years old. Thousands of lives came to a standstill without access to a basic survival necessity.

Mississippians have been dealing with unsafe water for years. Even before the storm, Jackson had some of the highest levels of lead, well above the EPA’s recommended levels. The Department of Health reported that 208 Mississippians are diagnosed with lead poisoning annually. The number might be higher since only Medicaid eligible children were screened. In 2016, the state also refused to give the city the $400,000 necessary to do a corrosion-control study of the city’s water pipes. This study would be necessary for finding lead in drinking-water samples. 

Referring to the water crisis, the Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, said: “During Kane Ditto’s administration, he did repair work on water and sewer. So, what has happened since then?” Kane Ditto was Jackson’s last white mayor before desegregation led to white flight and the resultant demographic shift. Insinuating that Black people cannot govern themselves and need to be supervised by white overseers, Hosemann’s remark clarifies that white supremacy is well and alive within Mississippi’s political apparatus.

To answer Hosemann’s question succinctly, what happened during, before, and after Ditto’s administration was and is the continued neglect of Jackson’s majority-Black population and the working class broadly by the capitalist state institutions.

Hosemann rejected the $1 billion Mayor Chokwe Lumumba requested to repair Jackson’s water system. Even the $1 billion ask was less than what is needed, as some official estimates say it would take $2 billion to fully repair the system. In addition to rejecting the necessary funding, Hosemann also wanted the state government to take control of Jackson’s Medgar-Evers Airport, which is one of the few sources of revenue for the city of Jackson.

Kwame Shakur, a volunteer with Mississippi Winter Storm Rapid Response Fund, said to Liberation News, “[the politicians] are using [the water system] as political football.”

On March 9, Lt. Gov. Hosemann and Mayor Lumumba met at the Capitol to discuss short-term fixes for Jackson’s water system. They were able to negotiate $47 million for immediate water distribution and treatment maintenance and a 1% sales tax for ongoing improvements. It took the state government almost a month, from the beginning of the ice-storm Feb. 15 to March 9 to bring forth these grossly inadequate funds. For most of this time, many residents remained without running or treated water.

At the state level, the political leadership is blaming the crisis on Jackson’s Black residents. Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves said, “I do think it’s really important that the City of Jackson start collecting their water-bill payments before they start going and asking everyone else to pony up more money.” 

In other words, Gov. Reeves is saying that if Jackson’s Black residents would just pay their water bills, the City would not be in this crisis; that the City must rely on the outrageously expensive water bills with which it burdens its residents to modernize the entire water system. Ignoring the reality of crumbling infrastructure, poverty, racial disparities in Mississippi — all of which the capitalist political leadership is responsible — Reeve’s is abdicating his own responsibility.

The government—at the national, state, and city levels—is responsible for Jackson’s water crisis and is also responsible for repairing the water system in its entirety. A crisis of this magnitude caused by decades of chronic under-funding. It warrants the federal government and the U.S. Congress to issue a state-wide emergency and immediately direct the necessary funding and resources to Mississippi. Neither Mississippi’s state government nor the federal government has any will to do so.

On Mississippi’s political system, Shakur said, “In Mississippi it’s always been like that. If you look at the historical context, Black people never really had a fair shake in this state. I don’t expect anything to change without force.”

A mere $2 billion is refused for safe, drinkable water for Jackson’s majority-Black working class. But capitalist politicians of both parties in Congress are looking to increase the country’s war budget by tens of billions of dollars. The U.S. “defense” budget is higher than the next 10 countries combined. Meanwhile, over 60 million people in the United States are exposed to unsafe tap water each year, and 2 million have no running water.

In the absence of state-coordinated relief, rapid-relief efforts by many grassroots organizations have been helping Jacksonians and people throughout the state. Local non-profits, churches, and mosques have been attempting to fill the gap left by the state government.

Speaking with Liberation News, Kalif Wilkes, dispatch coordinator for the Mississippi Winter Storm Rapid Response Fund said, “We’re out here supplying water and supplies for residents affected by the winter storm or may be still going through the after-effects of the winter storm, like people who still have no power or people who have low water pressure or maybe even financially impacted by the winter storm.” The Fund has assisted nearly 1,000 Mississippians by dropping off water and supplies door to door.

The lesson the working class can learn from this water crisis is that the capitalist leadership of Mississippi is committed to racism and poverty. It will take an organized struggle — a people’s movement — to get what Mississippi’s working class needs. And ultimately it needs nothing short of a new system and a government with a working-class leadership dedicated to eradicating racism.

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