In Jackson, Mississippi, an endless water crisis

published on Tuesday 05 April 2022 at 11:24 am

Every morning 180 children leave their school in Jackson, the capital of Mississippi, to go to another school by bus. The reason? Being able to go to the toilet. Because, in the absence of sufficient pressure, it is impossible to fill the rinses with those of their establishment.

Cheryl Brown, the principal of the Wilkins School, where 98% of the 400 students are African American and largely from disadvantaged backgrounds, does not hide her fatigue.

“It’s very difficult. It’s exhausting for the boys and girls at school and it’s exhausting for our staff,” she told AFP.

In the first world power, Jackson, with its 155,000 inhabitants, is in a water crisis. The Mississippi Water Authority found as early as 2016 that the municipal system has “significant deficiencies.”

In question, water contaminated with lead, an ancient sewage treatment plant, cracked cast iron pipes.

“The pipes are dilapidated and the replacement plan the city decided on in 2013 has not been implemented (…). The city estimates that its system is losing 40 to 50% of its water,” according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency. Agency (EPA) in a 2020 report.

“Three local hospitals had to dig their own wells,” she added.

– Health scandal –

Such a situation is far from a first. One of the worst health scandals in the United States occurred in the former industrial town of Flint, Michigan, where a change in supply decided to save money for residents exposed to lead poisoning.

The towns of Flint and Jackson are predominantly black, which to many illustrates “environmental racism” as African Americans are disproportionately affected by pollutants.

Cheryl Brown, the director of the Wilkins School, does not want to dwell on this question. What she knows for sure is that the situation is untenable.

Today, half of the students use the Wilkins restrooms, where the toilets are manually filled by staff. The other half leave for a different establishment every day, resulting in a significant loss of instruction time, she laments.

The city engineer in charge of water, Charles Williams, explains to AFP the lack of pressure in the pipes due to the geographic location of the school. But he recognizes that the overall problem is more complex.

According to him, the city has come to this because of “delay in maintenance (of factories and pipes) and lack of money”.

He estimates that it will take $3 to $5 billion to rebuild a healthy system.

Local journalist Nick Judin did a lengthy investigation into the topic for the online media “Mississippi Free Press”. For him, the decrease in the EPA’s resources to help municipalities manage their water, as well as the exodus of the population to the suburbs, are their part of the responsibility.

Jackson has a quarter fewer inhabitants than in 1980. The amount brought in by taxes and water bills to support the maintenance of the network has decreased as a result.

Mainly because “some (residents) receive bills regularly, others occasionally and others never,” adds Nick Judin.

– “Not normal” –

At the end of 2012, the city commissioned the German company Siemens to introduce an efficient metering and billing system.

But in early 2020, the group reimbursed $90 million from the contract, which the mayor accused of never testing compatibility between meters and the computer system…

The severity of the following winter brought the main sewage treatment plant to a standstill and several hundred-year-old pipes burst one after the other.

No improvement has been seen since then, residents told AFP.

“We haven’t had (Jacksons) water in about 12 years,” said Priscilla Sterling in sad Farish Street, the backbone of an affluent black neighborhood until the 1970s. Wash with it,” she adds.

“We’re not supposed to live like this. It’s not normal. It’s not normal at all,” said Barbara Davis, who works at a church, pointing to the brownish water coming out of her faucet.

Terun Moore is helping the residents of a poor and particularly affected neighborhood in the south of the city thanks to a water filter system offered by the 501CTHREE association.

“Not everyone can buy water. We give reusable jerry cans, they can fill them,” he shows.

The city assures AFP that even brown and contaminated with lead, the water remains drinkable, except for pregnant women and children. None of the inhabitants who crossed it believe in it.