The Water Crisis in Jackson, Mississippi 

Access to safe drinking water is a fundamental human right. The United Nations Human Rights Office recognizes six key elements of water sanitation – availability, accessibility, affordability, acceptability, quality, and safety – that governments are obliged by international human rights law to provide. In Jackson, Mississippi, a water emergency revealed how local, state, and federal initiatives have been inadequate to ensure proper water sanitation for the city’s residents; thus, grossly violating their human rights. 

On August 29, Jackson, Mississippi’s Mayor Lumumba declared a water system emergency due to recent flooding that left the city’s water infrastructure crumbling. President Biden echoed this declaration by authorizing federal funds to assist the state’s disaster relief efforts to reinstate the proper functioning of the water system.  The heavy rainfall and rising water levels in the Pearl River basin severely impacted the city’s water treatment plants, creating pressure problems that diminished the plants’ ability to optimally disinfect drinking water.  Moreover, an incident report by the Mississippi State Department of Health found that the water treatment plants were understaffed, further contributing to the emergency – leaving thousands of people without access to clean and safe drinking water. 

However, this state of emergency is closer to the status quo for the 150,000 residents of Jackson, Mississippi, as these water system failures are hardly recent discoveries. The first discovery came in February of 2020, when the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) launched an investigation of the region that yielded fourteen observations of concern regarding the city’s public water system. 

The report detailed the city of Jackson’s failure to rectify disinfection issues found at the city’s water plants, where maximum residue levels of toxins were exceeded and UV monitoring disinfection devices were found to be offline for “significant periods of time.” Findings from the city’s own 2021 Annual Drinking Water Quality Report (released in June of 2022) further revealed over 15 treatment violations and deficiencies dating back to 2016. These violations ranged from “water quality parameters not meeting minimum values” to “exceedances of monthly turbidity limits,” which monitor the color and cloudiness of the water. 

This year, the city has already dispatched nine water safety notices – including boil, lead, and copper notices – to inform residents to take action against water sanitation issues. Such notices are issued when the city’s tap water contains unsafe levels of  copper or lead; residents are then notified to either boil their tap water or to use bottled water for activities such as eating, drinking, or bathing. These numerous reports detail the government’s consistent failure to ensure minimum standards of water quality and safety for the residents of Jackson. The issue is not only disheartening, but in direct violation of these residents’ human rights. 

Furthermore, the NAACP has also filed a civil rights complaint with the EPA concerning the water crisis. Since 83% of the city’s residents are Black or African American, the complaint argues that these repeated failures to ensure water quality and safety for the residents of Jackson are inherently discriminatory. The complaint also cites a violation of the Civil Rights Acts, framing the current issue within a clear history of discrimination and neglect.

Moreover, the complaint points to evidence of federal funds being repeatedly denied to the city of Jackson’s public water system; instead, these funds were directed toward majority-white communities in surrounding areas. Such discriminatory allocation of funds has contributed to the inequity of water sanitation in the Jackson area: leaving the majority Black city of Jackson with dirty water coming from their taps. If the EPA verifies these complaints, the NAACP’s filing may serve as a legal precedent for further lawsuits under the Mississippi Safe Drinking Water Act of 1997, the Safe Drinking Water Act and the Clean Water Act as future methods of redress. 

The City of Jackson Water System’s failure to ensure clean water for their residents constitutes a fundamental human rights violation in accordance with the United Nations right to water sanitation. These deficiencies rest on the shoulders of the government officials who are tasked with maintaining access to clean water. Collectively, local, state, and federal governments alike must collaborate to significantly reform water sanitation practices and ensure equitable access to clean, safe drinking water for all.

In order to rectify these pitfalls, officials can start by creating a water sanitation task force of community leaders and experts, revaluating relevant government budgets, and rectifying current violations in water sanitation systems and practices. These actions would not only ameliorate current violations, but also help prevent future violations from occurring. Immediate action should be taken to ensure that the basic human rights of those living in Jackson, Mississippi are protected. As a purported leader of human rights, America must do better to ensure that no one is denied the fundamental right of clean, safe drinking water.

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