03 September 2022 |

“Do Not Drink the Water”

By workweek

Thousands of Jackson, Mississippi, residents are without water following water plant failures. No water to shower. No water to flush the toilet. No water to drink.

While this may be “breaking news” it certainly isn’t “new” news for Jackson residents. For years, the city has grappled with its broken water system and subsequent public health consequences.

The Deets

Most of the 150,000 Jackson residents have been without running water due to recent flooding that strained the city’s largest water treatment plant, O.B. Curtis. The plant’s main pumps have been out of service, forcing the plant to rely on weaker backup pumps. The city’s other plant, J.H. Fewell, attempted to pick up the slack, but there have also been issues with its pumps.

Since the pumps have been out of order, water towers have been empty. The low water levels have led to decreased pressures insufficient to supply water to homes, schools and businesses. Even if water makes it out of the faucet, state officials warn residents, “do not drink the water” due to contamination.

Dash’s Dissection

Water plants in advanced nations shouldn’t be so vulnerable that a bout of bad weather wreaks havoc on the system. In fact, this isn’t Jackson’s first issue with water plant malfunctions: back in February 2021, the city experienced severe water issues after cold weather affected the plant’s piping.

Jackson has dealt with its poor water infrastructure for years, if not decades. The city simply doesn’t have enough tax revenue or state funds to update its water plants. The problem stems from white flight, where white residents have fled the city, draining financial resources. Mississippi is already the lowest-income state in the country, and nearly a quarter of Jackson’s residents live under the federal poverty level. Given Jackson’s population is 80% Black, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that structural racism and inequities have led to a lack of state and federal funding to update the city’s water plants.

The city will need around $1B to update its water treatment infrastructure, which seems impossible to accrue at the moment. In Biden’s latest Infrastructure bill, $75 million is planned to go to Mississippi. But that’s barely enough to solve Jackson’s problems.

Access to clean water is essential for public health. Nearly 25% of the world population lacks access to clean water—who would have thought that included residents of the U.S.?

Lack of access to fresh water has acute and chronic health consequences. Immediate effects concern those with kidney disease that need dialysis. Even one missed dialysis treatment can lead to severe electrolyte abnormalities and hospitalization. Long-term effects include overall health, wellness and economic instability. A couple of newsletters ago, I discussed Maslow’s hierarchy of needs regarding insurance companies investing in sustainable housing.

Essentially, humans need to fulfill physiological needs before fulfilling safety needs. This includes access to food, clean water and stable housing, allowing people to effectively care for health and employment. Given Jackson residents can barely fulfill their basic physiological needs, it’s difficult to expect any health, wellness and economic improvement. Public health funding is, therefore, essential to improve Jackson, Mississippi.