“It’s a parody of our days”: anger as an American city of 150,000 inhabitants no longer has drinking water to drink

In the Walmart parking lot, a long line of vehicles is a stark reflection of America in 2022.

There are faces of frustration inside every car. There is also anger and confusion because here in Jackson, the state capital of Mississippi, they don’t have clean water.

A boil water order has been put in place across the city for the past month due to “high turbidity levels”, which makes the water cloudy. This followed a series of disruptions to the city’s water supply for years, caused by
high lead levels, bacterial contamination and storm damage.

This time, the crisis was exacerbated by flooding, which damaged the city’s aging treatment plants.

“It’s a travesty that this is happening these days,” a man in the queue tells me. “When the infrastructure is outdated, that’s the kind of problem we have.”

“We don’t trust water at all,” said another, adding that she hasn’t trusted water for years.

Many in this city of 150,000 people collect for loved ones, young and old.

“We are trying to bring water to her mother. She is 87 years old,” said a woman, pointing to her passenger.

I ask if they have water at home. “It comes out, but it’s very slow. And you can’t use it for anything. We’re told to boil it for three minutes.”

Guidelines issued by the American Red Cross suggest that people should use coffee filters to remove sand from water before boiling it, as it stands.

Beyond the immediate challenges of how to wash, flush the toilet, find water to drink, they blame either the city mayor or the state governor.

“The governor is to blame for this,” one man said. “He won’t give Jackson the funds to help him.”

In Jackson, the state capital of Mississippi, USA, they have no clean drinking water after a series of disruptions to the city's water supply that date back years, caused by high levels levels of lead, bacterial contamination and storm damage.  This time, the crisis was exacerbated by floods,
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Queues for water are a daily occurrence

Floodwaters from the Pearl River have also crippled the water supply system for the past fortnight, but it’s not just a story of storm damage. It’s a question of funding, politics and race.

In Jackson, 82% of the inhabitants are black, a quarter live in poverty – 25% for a country where the average poverty rate is 11%. Crime rates are among the highest in the country.

Jackson is a city that feels neglected and forgotten, like so many corners of America today.

President Joe Biden has made tackling the country’s collapsing infrastructure a central political issue ahead of November’s midterm elections.

He pledged federal support for immediate challenges. Repairing a legacy of underinvestment will take many years.

At a citywide press conference, a show of political unity masked a delicate relationship between the city’s mayor and state governor.

Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba, a Democrat, has been asking for more funding for Jackson from the state’s Republican Governor, Tate Reeves, for years.

Republican Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves
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State Governor Tate Reeves

I asked Mr. Reeves why the city is in this extraordinary situation.

“Well, what I would say to you is that I know you in the press really want to play the blame game, and you really want to focus on playing different people against each other, and that’s certainly your priority, and that’s fine.

“What we are focused on is the immediate health and well-being of Jackson residents.”

Governor Reeves continued: “There will be plenty of time in the future to play the blame game. And you can do all of that, you can do it in real time if you want to, but I don’t have the time for that.”

The city’s mayor, Chokwe Antar Lumumba, who some also blame for the crisis, has been more forthcoming.

“This is an accumulated set of issues based on deferred maintenance that hasn’t happened in decades,” he said.

He estimated it would cost at least $1bn (£870m) to fix the water system. Billions more would be needed to address the broader neglect.

“The people of Jackson deserve a reliable system, and we look forward to a coalition of the willing who will join us in the fight to improve this system that has failed for decades,” Mayor Lumumba said.

The harsh reality is that authorities here have no idea when clean water will return to this American community.

“It’s a parody of our days”: anger as an American city of 150,000 inhabitants no longer has drinking water to drink

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