Every morning, 180 children leave their school in Jackson, the capital of Mississippi, to take the bus to another. Cause? Possibility to go to the toilet. Because it is impossible, due to the lack of sufficient pressure, to fill the flushes with those that start them.
Cheryl Brown, director of the Wilkins School, where 98% of the 400 students are African American and mostly from dysfunctional families, does not hide his fatigue.
In the first world power, Jackson, with its 155,000 inhabitants, is experiencing a water crisis. The Mississippi Water Authority found “significant deficiencies” in the municipal system back in 2016.
We are talking about the lead-contaminated water of a hundred-year-old treatment plant, cast-iron pipes burst.
“The pipes fell into disrepair and the replacement plan adopted by the city in 2013 was not implemented (…). The city estimates that its system is losing 40 to 50 percent of its water,” the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency noted. Agency (EPA) in the 2020 report.
“Three local hospitals were forced to dig their own wells,” she added.
– Health Scandal –
This situation is far from the first. One of the biggest medical scandals in the United States took place in the former industrial city of Flint, Michigan, where a proposal change decided to save money by putting residents at risk of lead poisoning.
The cities of Flint and Jackson are predominantly black, exemplifying “environmental racism” for many, as African Americans are disproportionately affected by pollutants.
Cheryl Brown, principal at Wilkins, doesn’t want to dwell on the issue. What she is sure of is that the situation is untenable.
Today, half of the students use Wilkins toilets, where the toilets are manually filled by staff. The other half travel daily to another institution for the day, resulting in a significant loss of class time, she laments.
City engineer in charge of water supply, Charles Williams, explains to AFP the lack of pressure in the pipes by the geographic location of the school. But he acknowledges that the overall problem is more complex.
According to him, the city came to this because of “delayed repairs (factories and pipes) and lack of funds.”
He estimates that it will take between $3 billion and $5 billion to restore a healthy system.
Local journalist Nick Judin conducted a lengthy investigation into the matter for the online publication Mississippi Free Press. For him, cuts in EPA funds to help municipalities manage their water, as well as exodus to the suburbs, are both responsible.
Jackson has a quarter fewer residents than it did in 1980. Thus, the amount of taxes and water bills to support network maintenance has decreased.
Moreover, “some (residents) receive bills regularly, others periodically, and still others never,” adds Nick Judin.
– “Not normal” –
In late 2012, the city commissioned the German company Siemens to implement an efficient accounting and billing system.
But in early 2020, the group refunded a $90 million contract, accused by the mayor of never checking the compatibility of the meters and the computer system…
The severity of the next winter brought the main sewage treatment plants to a halt, and several hundred-year-old pipes burst one after another.
There has been no improvement since then, local residents told AFP.
“We haven’t had water (Jackson) for about 12 years,” Priscilla Sterling said on sad Farish Street, which was the backbone of a thriving black neighborhood until the 1970s, to wash with her,” she adds.
“We shouldn’t live like this. It is not normal. It’s not normal at all,” Barbara Davis, who works at the church, said, pointing to brownish water coming out of her faucet.
Terun Moore helps residents of a poor and hard-hit area in the south of the city with a water filtration system proposed by the 501CTHREE association.
“Not everyone can buy water. We give reusable canisters, they can fill them,” he shows.
The city assures AFP that even the brown and lead-polluted water remains drinkable, except for pregnant women and children. None of the crossed residents believe in it.