WORDS BY YESSENIA FUNES
Photograph by jeremy Lange
The water crisis in Jackson, Mississippi, reminds us how much worse things will get in a heating world if we don’t take action now. The Frontline shows us a path forward.
How do you start your day? For me, I usually head to the bathroom. I do my business, and then I flush. That requires running water—and water pressure. Then, I hop in the shower. Again, water (and pressure) is needed. Finally, I brush my teeth and wash my face. These also require water. Once I’m dressed for the day, I head into my kitchen where I usually boil some water for tea.
You get where I’m going with this, right? It’s tough to imagine going about your day without any water. And yet, that’s the reality many Black and Brown folks across the U.S. face. The latest water crisis has unfolded in Jackson, Mississippi, a predominantly Black city that has been without clean and safe drinking water since Aug. 29 (though the crisis has been simmering for decades). Before Jackson, however, there was Flint, Michigan. There was Newark, New Jersey. And Hawaii. There seems to be a new water crisis every day—from arsenic in the water of a public housing project in New York City to E. coli in the water of Baltimore, Maryland. And if water isn’t contaminated, it’s simply not there at all. Climate change is creating more of each scenario.
Welcome to The Frontline, where we recognize that water is life. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate director of Atmos. Let’s break down what’s going on in Jackson. More importantly, however, I talk to folks on the ground to find out what you all can do about it. Now is the time for action and solidarity.
Kali Akuno has lived in Jackson for 10 years. He came to the city because he saw what it represented: an opportunity to exercise Black self-determination, to build a Black-led vision of equity, fairness, and beauty. This all felt possible in a city that’s predominantly Black, especially a city that serves as the state capital.
There, Akuno came to cofound Cooperation Jackson, a cooperative network dedicated to sustainability and community health. Still, living in Jackson hasn’t been easy despite the comfort of being among kinfolk. “It’s rough,” Akuno said. “The current situation is just a chronic duration of an inadequate state of development.”
Jackson’s water crisis didn’t happen overnight. Though heavy rains and flooding pushed the failed local water treatment facility over the edge, the plant was in need of attention long before the water rose. Officials ignored the red flags because of, well, environmental racism. That’s the thing about climate change: it washes away the bullshit until only the truth remains. In Jackson, the crisis has brought to the surface how poorly leaders have managed and maintained U.S. infrastructure in Black communities. Jackson wasn’t the first time the government let its people down. It won’t be the last.
But why not make Jackson the catalyst for change? Why not make it the beginning of the end? We have a say. We put elected officials in their seats. It’s time to hold them accountable—and demand more. The people of Jackson deserve a life beyond boil water advisories. Everyone deserves access to clean and safe water. Climate change is the latest threat to that human right, but useless government representatives have been eroding that right for decades.
“There have been water wars within my lifetime already,” Akuno said. “This is coming.”
How Jackson Got Here
Let’s be clear. The water crisis in Jackson is a symptom of systemic racism. Without the racist housing policies the U.S. federal government enacted in the 1920s and 1930s (better known as redlining), perhaps Black cities and communities like Jackson wouldn’t be facing the lack of financial investment and opportunity that allowed their water infrastructure to crumble in the first place.
Heather McTeer Toney, the vice president of community engagement with advocacy group Environmental Defense Fund who has been posting videos to social media about the crisis to inform viewers, reminded me of the rich discriminatory history Black communities have faced in the U.S.—a history that contributes to their ongoing struggles.
Redlining has had long-lasting ripple effects in communities of color. That’s the backdrop for the remarkable disinvestment many Black and Brown communities face. What Jackson faces today is the legacy of the actions decision-makers took about a century ago. However, present-day leaders in Mississippi have had plenty of opportunities to rectify the mistakes of their predecessors. They’ve been aware of the city’s aging water infrastructure for decades.
In 2012, the court (by way of the Environmental Protection Agency) ordered the city of Jackson to address water concerns. In 2020, nearly a decade later, the EPA issued an emergency order regarding the city’s dangerous drinking water conditions. About a year later, a winter storm disabled the city’s water system. Boil water advisories are common in the city. Water has always been a problem, but state officials have refused to take action. In fact, they even killed one city-bred proposal last year: a 1% sales tax to fund water and sewage infrastructure.
“They have tried, but there has been a barrier, and that barrier has resulted in a public health impact to the people who live in that community,” McTeer Toney said.
You’d think with Jackson being the home of the state capital that leaders would prioritize its well-being. Instead, they’re looking for cheap and easy fixes to a problem that actually requires a complete overhaul of the city’s infrastructure. With climate change here, cities need resiliency, not a band-aid, said Catherine Coleman Flowers, the founding director of the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice, which focuses on water and sanitation issues in rural America.
“You can’t repair something that’s failing over and over again,” she said. “It needs to be replaced. We have to change the mindset in communities of color and poor communities where we think cheap is best instead of finding something that is resilient and sustainable and works long term.”
How You Can Help
The Jackson water crisis is emblematic of a systemic issue, but the people there need immediate help. The city turned the water pressure back on last week, but the water isn’t clean. Residents (and restaurants and other businesses) must still boil their water to use it. If they want to shower, they are told to do so with their mouths closed. (Yes, really.) And local organizers feel confident that it’s only a matter of time until the water is gone again.
There are a few ways to help those on the ground. Akuno of Cooperation Jackson has been giving out pallets of water to the community. Each pallet typically holds some 200 gallons of water, and his team distributed some 50 pallets over the weekend.
If you want to support the group’s efforts—which also include a months-long plan to build out a comprehensive community-led water system with strategically placed filters (in churches and community centers) and adequate testing to protect residents during the next water crisis—you can donate here.
Meanwhile, the Immigrant Alliance for Justice and Equity is working closely with its partners in the Mississippi Rapid Response Coalition to support residents. The alliance is especially focused on the city’s non-English speakers and immigrant communities. Team members are actively working to translate city updates to ensure everyone is up to date on what’s happening with their water. They have also been conducting water distributions in the evenings. You can donate to the coalition efforts here or to the Immigrant Alliance for Justice and Equity here.
“It’s been a work of love,” said Lorena Quitoz, the executive director of the alliance.
That’s also true for Cindy Ayers Elliot, the CEO of Foot Print Farms, an 86-acre urban farm in the city. She’s a Native Mississippian and provides fresh food and economic development to the community through her business. Right now, she’s focused on providing as much clean water to her neighbors as she can. The farm has its own private wells that are not impacted by the city’s water crisis, so she’s been welcoming anyone in need to come fill up their water tanks. She’s also been working with local nonprofits that can deliver water to those unable to come to the farm themselves. Her business is taking donations to distribute to local nonprofits here.
“Water is a human right, and it should be for every American,” Ayers Elliot said.
“Water is a human right, and it should be for every American.”
In Jackson, churches play a key role in advocating for the community’s rights. They’ve also been taking part in the emergency response—as they do in most Black communities. When government fails, community members often come to the church for aid. That’s why Rev. CJ Rhodes, a pastor at Mount Helm Baptist Church, Jackson’s oldest historically Black congregation, has been hard at work. Like others, Rhodes has been organizing water donations. His congregation needs resources to purchase water, but also to purchase forklifts to move all the water and offer some compensation to volunteers who offer their services. You can support the church with a donation here or support the state’s wider missionary’s efforts here.
Still, he recognizes that long-term action is needed to keep not only his community safe but to prevent this from happening elsewhere, too.
“I love how we do this humanitarian stuff, but this is untenable,” Rhodes said. “If in the next two months, 20 cities experience what Jackson is experiencing, it’s going to be real tough. We need churches to get involved and engage with people.”
His church, for instance, doesn’t shy away from politics. He’s not afraid to put pressure on local officials. That’s what they need. They need to feel the heat. Without real change, the people of Jackson will be in this situation again. In the U.S., elections are creeping up in November. Whom we elect matters. Do they talk about climate change? How about water concerns?
If you can’t vote—because, let’s face it, voter suppression is real—can you become involved in your local boards and meetings? Raise your voice. Talk to the youth in your life and inform them about the electoral process. (Yes, even if they’re not of voting age yet.) If you’re willing, why not run for office yourself?
Systemic problems require systemic change. And things will always remain the same so long as we allow them to. We can’t normalize the trauma of Black and Brown communities. We can’t normalize such avoidable suffering. The climate crisis is already making things worse. We, the people, have the power to change course.