Jackson water crisis: A legacy of Environmental Racism?

Marshall lives in west Jackson, which is mostly black and poor. West Jackson is in the US state of Mississippi. He has no choice but to drink the tap water that people in Jackson have been warned not to drink. When he turns on the faucet, brown water comes out.

He says it’s been like this for about eight months and he has to drink it.

“Yes ma’am. I have been drinking it.” When we ask if it worries him, he smiles. “I’ll be 70 at the end of the month,” he says.

Marshall doesn’t have a car, so he can’t go to where the National Guard is giving out water. Because of a fire in the house next door, he doesn’t have electricity or gas, so he can’t boil the water to make it safer.

“Rarely is it pure. It can be a little bit lighter or a little bit darker. When I turn on the bath water, it always comes out rusty at first, but then it gets lighter. But the rust always comes first.”

Aaron Banks has spent most of his life in Jackson, the capital of Mississippi. He now represents a district that is more than 90% Black.

He says that he thinks the latest failure of Jackson’s water supply was caused by a terrible mix of old infrastructure and climate change.

In 2020, freezing temperatures shut down Jackson’s water treatment facility. According to Mr Banks, his district went without water for almost six weeks, which was much longer than other places. Since then, it has been hard for the town’s infrastructure to keep up.

“In the last two years, we haven’t gone a month without a “boil water” notice or low to no water pressure,” he says. “Unfortunately, that’s how we’re used to living as Americans. No one should have to get used to that kind of quality of life.”

Mr Banks says that people of colour are usually the ones who are forced to change. The councilman says that for years, he has seen the state pour money into the infrastructure of Jackson’s towns and surrounding areas, but they haven’t put money into the places that need it the most, like the city’s water treatment plant.

Jackson water crisis
Jackson water crisis

In President Joe Biden’s landmark infrastructure bill, money was set aside for poor and underserved areas like Jackson, which had 163,000 people in 2020. But the money is given out by state lawmakers, who, according to Mr Banks, are often swayed by politics and put projects for their constituents ahead of fixing systemic problems in Jackson.

Professor Edmund Merem, an urban planning and environmental studies professor at Jackson State University, says, “We have an old water treatment plant that no one has thought about in years.”

“I think the problem is that people don’t always know what to do.”

But Prof. Merem also thinks that race has taken attention and money away from the crumbling infrastructure in Jackson.

Experts and advocates say that what is happening in Jackson and in places like Flint, Michigan, where the water supply was tainted with lead, is a direct result of decades of discrimination and segregation.

A lawyer and advocate for environmental justice named Arielle King say, “This is a situation that has been building for decades.”

“I think that the history of racial segregation and redlining in this country has contributed a lot to the environmental injustices we see right now.”

In the 1940s, people of colour were turned down for mortgages and loans because they were seen as “too risky.” This was called “redlining.”

The programme ran for more than 40 years, and as a result, Ms King says, low-income, mostly black communities were clustered in places with polluting industries like landfills, oil refineries, and wastewater treatment plants.

She points out that these places still exist today.

She gives as an example places like “Cancer Alley” in the United States. The area along the Mississippi River was once home to Louisiana’s huge plantations. Now, it is an industrial highway with more than 150 oil refineries and factories.

Because of pollution, the mostly black residents have had some of the highest rates of cancer in the country for decades.

Ms King says that environmental racism and decades of not putting money into low-income areas have left their mark on Jackson.

“They can say that different things cause flooding, but people wouldn’t live in areas that are likely to flood in the first place without redlining,” says Ms King.

“So, once again, it seems to always come back to race and environmental racism, which is sad.”

Sarina Larson is in law school and lives just a few blocks from Marshall. She moved from Sacramento, and now she wants to be a lawyer for the public. She also says that redlining is to blame for the problems in the area.

There are bowls of different sizes all over the floor in her kitchen. She uses a water filter to clean the rainwater she gets from them.

She says, “The pipes in Jackson have lead in them, so I would never drink a glass of water there.” “I don’t use tap water to brush my teeth.”

But she admits that most people can’t afford the 300 dollars (£260) filter she bought.

“When this kind of water crisis affects people from a higher class, it becomes a problem. It has been going on for a long time, and Jackson shows that. The state is more important than people’s health.”

We met Imani Olugbala-Aziz at a local community centre where she and other members of the volunteer group Cooperation Jackson were giving out bottles of water. In less than an hour, they were all gone. She tells us that she doesn’t have much water at home.

“It’s a clash of ideas and values, and there’s a lot of racism in the environment. We give our money to the government so that they can do what needs to be done. They don’t do it either.

“We’re underserved. People of colour don’t get enough help. So that we can stay alive, we live in the worst parts of town.

Ms Olugbala-Aziz says, “We don’t want mansions. We just want to live and have the basics, like running water and clean water.”

She says that there are a lot of homeless people in the area and that many of the shops have closed, making it hard for people to buy water.

“We’ve had to boil our water for about a month now. What do we do? It can’t be drunk. How do we cook and eat? How do we feed our kids?”

Ms Olugbala-Aziz says that people in areas where most of the people are white don’t have high water bills.

“This isn’t something that just started. This is going too slowly, and it can’t go on any longer. We’re struggling here.”

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