Cases of bottled water are handed out at a Mississippi Rapid Response Coalition distribution site on Aug. 31, 2022 in Jackson, Mississippi. Credit - Brad Vest—Getty Images
In Jackson, Miss., residents were already boiling their water for a month before their taps ran dry at the end of August. That’s when floodwaters from heavy rain overwhelmed the city’s fragile water treatment system, cutting off water pressure. On Sept. 5 water pressure was restored, but it’s still hard to find a cup of coffee in the city, with Starbucks and other businesses posting signs announcing indefinite closures due to Jackson’s continuing boil-water notice.
It’s a tragically common occurrence for the majority Black city, where roads, water mains, and other infrastructure is crumbling beneath residents’ feet. But a few miles north in the majority-white suburb of Madison, the water never stopped flowing.
Arthur Davis, 57, a patron at a local Jackson restaurant who lives outside the city, told me the problem started 40 years ago when the city’s wealthy white tax base began to flee Jackson. The crisis has left him profoundly disappointed. “This is the capital of Mississippi,” he says. “This should never have happened.”
A version of this story first appeared in the Climate is Everything newsletter. To sign up, click here.
When we think of the effects of climate change, we tend to imagine the most cinematic examples: floodwaters creeping up through the porous limestone under Miami, wildfires overwhelming towns in California, hurricane-force winds whipping between the skyscrapers of Manhattan. But what activists and researchers have been saying for years is that those disasters are only part of the story, with climate change also exacerbating the slow social disasters of poverty and discrimination.
The reasons behind Jackson’s water crisis are complicated—city management may share some blame, alongside years of neglect by a mostly white, conservative state government. But it’s hard to avoid the fact that flooding that barely touched people’s lives in white suburbs, and which didn’t break recent records, caused the bottom to fall out of a poorer, majority-Black city, whose infrastructure had been so depleted over the years that the heavy rains were essentially the straw that broke the camel’s back.
For years, terms like “environmental justice” have been getting more common in discussions about climate change. And yet the issue often fails to capture national attention. But that changed two weeks ago when Jackson ran out of water. And as a tide of news coverage seems to indicate, it could represent a turning point in the national conversation: that it’s impossible to talk about the effects of climate change without addressing the fact that those most at risk are those who our society has made most vulnerable.
Keeping that story alive is of critical importance to leaders in the city, who hope the national attention can help garner the resources to address Jackson’s decades-long infrastructure struggles. “At some point in time, we won’t be the predominant story in national news,” Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba told me. “We want to use this moment to ensure that something longer lasting is set in place.”