Mississippi's Water Crisis Is a 'Textbook Case' of Environmental Racism

"It's a perfect storm of failing infrastructure, flooding, and lack of response."

Cases of bottled water are handed out at a Mississippi Rapid Response Coalition distribution site on August 31, 2022 in Jackson, Mississippi.

Brad Vest / Getty Images

A water crisis in Jackson, Mississippi, left the city's 160,000 residents without safe drinking water. The catastrophe spotlights how climate change is actively threatening water supplies and, at its core, is a case of environmental racism.

A state of emergency was declared on Aug. 30 after the vast majority of the city's residents did not have access to running water from a lack of water pressure. As of Monday, government officials said water pressure was restored but the city’s tap water is still not safe to drink. (The city has been under a boil-water notice since July 30.)

Jackson is Mississippi's capital, the state's largest city, and its demographic is majority Black—82.5% of the city is Black or African American.

"Jackson is a textbook case of environmental racism 101," Robert Bullard, director of the Bullard Center for Environmental and Climate Justice at Texas Southern University and a member of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council, tells Treehugger. "It's a perfect storm of failing infrastructure, flooding, and lack of response. This is a case of long-term neglect. We're talking about a long, slow-moving disaster that really reached its peak in the last couple of years where the city has had water insecurity."

What Is Environmental Racism?

Environmental racism is defined as the disproportionate impact of environmental hazards on people of color. Environmental justice is the movement against environmental racism—one focused on minimizing environmental impacts on all people, advocating for fairer environmental policies and lawmaking, and installing greater protections for BIPOC communities. Learn more.

In late August, torrential, historic rains resulted in the flooding of Mississippi’s Pearl River and the Ross R. Barnett Reservoir, a 33,000-acre lake that provides water to Jackson. Floodwater typically contains contaminants that slow the process of treating water, resulting in low levels of clean water. Adding to the calamity is that the water pumps at the city's primary water treatment plant, the O.B. Curtis treatment plant, are out of service.

Not only do residents not have water for drinking, brushing their teeth, bathing, and cooking, but for many, finding the funds and transportation to access clean water is an added obstacle. According to census data, roughly 25% of Jackson residents are in poverty. For reference, the national poverty rate is about 11%.

Bullard says the water crisis is a byproduct of how the state of Mississippi has responded to its largest city over the years as Jackson's demographic changed to a majority-Black city. "That transition really follows a pattern of disinvestment by the state and the lack of support for infrastructure and maintaining that infrastructure which is tantamount to a form of what I call 'infrastructure apartheid,' which is an extension of racial redlining," he says.

The O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Plant on August 31, 2022 in Jackson, Mississippi.
The O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Plant in Jackson, Mississippi.

Brad Vest / Getty Images

The Future of Flooding in the U.S.

Experts agree that the United States will face more flooding over the next few decades, with Black communities at greatest risk. According to a study published in the journal Nature Climate Change, the U.S. will see a 26% increase in flood risk over the next 30 years, and the annual cost of flooding across the nation will hit $40 billion by 2050. The researchers also found that "the future increase in risk will disproportionately impact Black communities."

"The mapping clearly indicates Black communities will be disproportionately affected in a warming world, in addition to the poorer White communities which predominantly bear the historical risk," said Oliver Wing, lead author and honorary research fellow at the University of Bath's Cabot Institute for the Environment, in a statement. "Both of these findings are of significant concern."

Wing tells Treehugger the study, which he says is "the most comprehensive analysis of U.S. flood risk ever," is the first time a dollar amount has been placed on U.S. flood damages. "It adds further evidence of the inequitable impacts of flooding and climate change, and gives policymakers at all levels the appropriate tools to make risk mitigation decisions," he says.

Robert Bullard

The communities that are most at risk of climate change are the same communities that have been most at risk from structural, institutional, and racial redlining, as well as infrastructure discrimination. Climate change has a greater, disproportionate impact on Black and brown communities, which have contributed least to the problem but will feel more pain.

What Needs to Be Done?

"The risk is here already. Even when making projections to the future, most of that risk is historical risk. Risk that decision-makers have failed to deal with across decades of poor planning. A shifting climate adds to that already critical problem," says Wing. "Time and again we see it is disadvantaged communities bearing an outsized burden, and also often with less access to aid and assistance when disaster strikes. These are wrongs that must be righted with climate action, stricter land-use policies, sweeping reforms to emergency management, relocation where possible, engineering solutions where not."

Environmental racism often impacts the planning, financing, and implementation of infrastructure investment. "When you neglect infrastructure and there's a racial overlay, you place those cities and residents at risk for failing infrastructure," Bullard says. "And climate impact will be worsened by structural racism."

What does climate justice look like? Bullard says it needs to be acknowledged that racial and social inequality are major drivers of environmental and health disparity, coupled with redirecting resources to communities in need. He adds there's a dire need to apply a "justice and equity lens" on top of infrastructure planning, financing, and distribution of investments.

"[Jackson's water crisis] is not coincidental or accidental. It is not random how communities of color are hit when there's a flood, wildfire, drought, or a freeze," says Bullard. "This is happening in a number of cities. If you look at the Black Belt, there are extreme water infrastructure, sanitation, and wastewater problems that exist since slavery."

View Article Sources
  1. "About Us." Barnett Reservoir Pearl River Valley Water Supply District.

  2. Wing, Oliver E. J. et al. "Inequitable Patterns of US Flood Risk in the Anthropocene." Nature Climate Change, vol. 12, no. 2, 2022, pp. 156-162., doi:10.1038/s41558-021-01265-6