A month after winter storms wreaked havoc across the U.S. South, Jackson, Mississippi is still in the midst of a major crisis. As of March 5, thousands of residents continued to lack water service, and many more were subject to boil water advisories — all in the midst of a raging global pandemic that has caused immense suffering, especially in BIPOC communities.
The immediate cause of the crisis was record low temperatures, which caused many of the city’s aging pipes to break and knocked the main water treatment plant offline. But the situation in Jackson has much deeper roots, and it highlights the intersections between deteriorating infrastructure, racism and white supremacy, racial disparities in public health, and the failures of privatization. As the Biden administration begins to ramp up its infrastructure plans, it should not only prioritize cities like Jackson, but also ensure that badly needed infrastructure investments strengthen and preserve local ownership and control rather than siphon them off to giant corporations and international banks through exploitative and extractive privatization and public-private partnership (PPP) deals.
Like many cities, much of Jackson’s water infrastructure is old and in dire need of repairs and replacement. While the recent storms exacerbated the system’s problems, residents in the 82% Black, largely low-income city have long dealt with boil water advisories and contaminated water. In fact, as Gizmodo’s Dharna Noor points out, “research shows that across the country, contaminated drinking water and water system breakdown is more likely to affect communities of color.”
The plight of Jackson’s water system is a direct result of entrenched white supremacy in the state. “Be very clear,” Donna Ladd, founding editor of the Jackson Free Press, recently wrote, “white wealth didn’t just take its money and stomp out into suburban developments (formerly known as cow pastures) to leave Black cities behind. It has, in fact, done everything possible to burn down what they couldn’t take with them — a 20th century Sherman’s march out of American cities.” This process has included underfunding the city’s schools, using state legislation to control what the city can do to generate tax revenue, and, egregiously, attempting to seize control of the city’s publicly owned airport, which, Ladd writes, is “one of the few major revenue generators Jackson has left.”
Much of the attention being paid to Jackson’s water crisis has highlighted the need for significant federal and state support for water infrastructure modernization. Yet another critical part of the story hasn’t received the same consideration: The crisis in Jackson demonstrates not only the need for large-scale infrastructure investments, but the dangers of funneling those funds into extractive privatization and PPP deals that are often overly expensive, under-performing, and lack local accountability and control.
In 2012, former Jackson Mayor Harvey Johnson Jr. — the city’s first Black mayor — realized that previous white-led administrations had left the city’s water infrastructure in poor shape. As part of his efforts to fix the problem that year, Mayor Johnson signed a $90 million deal with Siemens — a large German multinational corporation — to upgrade water and sewer facilities, install new water meters and implement an automated billing system. Five years later, however, the Jackson City Council authorized new mayor Chokwe A. Lumumba to sue Siemens and its subcontractors for numerous failures related to the contract.
The lawsuit alleged that “instead of generating revenue or savings for the City, the work Siemens contracted to complete resulted in problems that have thrown Jackson’s water-sewer system into crisis and the City further into debt.” In particular, the new meter and billing system was riddled with problems, leading some residents to never receive a utility bill and others to receive exorbitant bills that they couldn’t pay. This, in turn, led the city to start moving money from its general fund to pay for water and sewer repairs.
More egregiously, Mayor Lumumba alleged that Siemens and the subcontractors “manipulated the minority contracting rules” to essentially double the cost of the project. While Siemens disputed these accusations, the company nonetheless settled the city’s lawsuit in early 2020 — agreeing to repay the entire $90 million contract. While this was a victory for the city’s residents, the amount (of which lawyers will take a substantial cut) is far less than the original $450 million the city was seeking when lost revenue and additional costs to repair the damaged system are taken into account.
Jackson is not alone in suffering the ill-effects of corporate involvement in the provision of water. There has been growing resistance to water privatization in the United States in recent years, along with several high-profile remunicipalizations—where privately-run services have been brought back under public control. Three interconnected factors, which were seen to varying degrees in Jackson, are driving many of these local efforts: higher rates and costs under private operation; poor performance and service by private operators; and loss of local control over decision making.
While large-scale investments — like the $2 trillion infrastructure plan President Biden laid out on the campaign trail — are urgently needed to address the critical issues facing Jackson and other U.S. communities, the design of such programs will be critical. Those investments could either serve to lower racial and economic inequality, provide high-quality services, and preserve local control by supporting public and cooperative ownership structures; or they could supercharge privatization and line the pockets of large multinational corporations at the expense of the health and prosperity of local residents.
If the Biden administration is serious about “Building Back Better,” it must ensure that justice and equity are at the heart of its agenda.