color photograph of a black person's hand holding the head of a shovel sticking out from water
JACKSON, MS - DECEMBER 29: A contractor working for the City of Jackson uses his shovel to check a damaged water main break along McLaurin Road on Dec. 29, 2022, in Jackson, Mississippi. (Photo by Joshua Lott/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Jackson, Mississippi, residents faced two disasters last summer: aging infrastructure and torrential rainfall resulting in limited access to clean water. Job shortages at the treatment plants in Jackson and several violations issued by the Environmental Protection Agency strained the already outdated system. 

Residents were put under boil water notices and struggled to brush their teeth, shower, cook, and perform other essential tasks with tap water. Between September 2022 and January 2023 alone, Jackson issued 70 boil water notices.

Now, one year after the crisis hit, President Joe Biden has announced his administration will allocate $115 million in initial funding to address the Jackson water crisis. This is the first allotment of the $600 million set aside in December.

“[W]e’re already deploying record resources to communities all across America to replace lead pipes, improve water quality, and rebuild the Nation’s drinking water infrastructure, ensuring it can withstand the impacts of the climate crisis,” Biden said in a press statement

Residents and local activists say the funding is a step in the right direction, but more needs to be done to provide the city with consistently clean water and prevent further disasters from happening in the future.

“When you add up the total price tag, [which Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba estimated to be $2 billion,] you kind of realize how insignificant that really is in the larger scheme of things,” said Kali Akuno, a co-founder and co-director of Cooperation Jackson. “This leads us to wonder when and how is this going to really be fixed? And is there going to be any possibility of moving beyond Band-Aids?” 

Akuno and his family still use water filters and bottled water to cook and shower, which has created a financial strain for his family with stable incomes. He said he can only imagine the impact of the costs of filters and bottled water for other families in Jackson. 

There’s work for Jackson to do to solve the water crisis in case the local and federal governments do not have the will or financial capacity, Akuno said. 

Akuno believes the organization’s Water Sovereignty Initiative, which has 10 water tanks that collect rainwater, will help the water crisis for future generations. The Water Sovereignty Initiative is in the initial stages of development and has run into supply-chain challenges to receive water tanks and find ways to monitor the water for contaminants.

“What we’ve been doing is trying to set up a separate system of water catchments throughout the city that we can utilize in times of acute crisis to be able to distribute water directly to residents and each of these kinds of communities,” Akuno said. “The city can do all it can. I think they are trying to do all they can, but we know it’s insufficient to deal with the situation at hand, and they just don’t have the resources … We [have] to come up with some other means. This is one way to go about doing that.”

Sally Ray, the director of domestic funds for the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, said several grants have been provided to organizations in Jackson in the fight to access clean drinking water. 

With the population in Jackson, which is a little more than 80% Black, decreasing, Ray said marginalized populations are almost always the most disproportionately affected by disasters. 

“Most disasters are preventable. Certainly, you can’t control a storm or a wildfire always … but you can build up the vulnerabilities. You can change that [by] investing in local communities where those vulnerabilities exist,” Ray said. “Systemic disinvestment, that long-term lack of resources being driven into that community, resulted in a hazard meeting a vulnerability, which is what we say is a disaster.”

The immediate projects prioritize corrosion control, an alternative water source plan, and chlorine system improvements at all water facilities, including the O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Plant, which had a chlorine leak last September. JXN Water, the company established to fix Jackson’s water supply, has an estimated budget of $2,976,500 for the next 12 months, which includes $400,000 yearly compensation for Ted Henifin, the interim third-party manager.

“It finally feels like that we haven’t been forgotten, as a community, as a city that we haven’t been forgotten in this issue,” said Dr. Mauda Monger, the CEO and founder of the SHE Project, which has assisted Jackson residents with receiving funding for water bills and accessing clean water.

“You have to support the voices and highlight and amplify those voices in that community and be sure that their needs are addressed,” Ray said. 

As Jackson continues to struggle almost one year after the water crisis reached its peak, local organizers are reminding people that cities all across the country could meet the same fate if officials aren’t prepared.

“If we can keep the spotlight on communities like Jackson or other communities … or tie it to Flint, I think [it would help] people understand that this isn’t one community suffering one problem. That this is a systemic issue, and it’s in communities across the U.S., even across the world,” Ray said. “You have to support the voices and highlight and amplify those voices in that community and be sure that their needs are addressed.”

Monger said elected officials on every level will need to work closely with the community to solve the Jackson water crisis. She hopes cities facing similar issues will take notes.

“My hope is that there’s going to be a long-term commitment, and not just for Jackson, but for other cities like Jackson because we won’t be the last city that will have this issue,” Monger said. “The continuation of a lot of long-term commitment for cities like Jackson is going to be vital to the wellness of this country.”

Imani Stephens is a journalist from Compton, California, who gives a voice to the voiceless. She is a graduate of The Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication and the Sandra Day O'Connor...