Millions of people in this world struggle to access adequate food, shelter and potable water. These are necessities that many of us living in the developed world are fortunate enough to take for granted — until systems fail and they are suddenly unavailable, as millions of Texans experienced in 2021 during Winter Storm Uri when the power went out and the pipes broke.
We’ve also witnessed, with horror, how Flint, Mich., in 2014 became synonymous with a contaminated water system caused by neglect and mismanagement, not only because of the turbid water flowing from faucets but also — especially — because of the elevated levels of lead in the blood of Flint children. The crisis there continues.
Now Jackson, Mississippi, is the most recent American city whose residents had to line up at distribution centers for cases of clean water or drive to another town to shower, wash, drink and flush with clean, treated water.
On Aug. 29, months and years of water problems left the 150,000 residents of Jackson, the state capital, without drinking water. This is just the latest crisis for a city whose water has been unreliable for years.
In 2016, lead was found in the water system. In 2020, the Environmental Protection Agency issued an emergency order saying Jackson’s water system violated the federal Safe Drinking Water Act and could endanger consumers because of the presence of E. coli.
Jackson had been under a boil-water notice since late July, and then came flooding last month that overwhelmed the city’s largest water treatment plant. Water towers then lacked the pressure needed to fill the pipes of the city’s residences, schools and businesses.
There are two issues at work here. One is disinvestment in water infrastructure in American cities and towns. The other is climate change, fueling extreme weather. Water systems across the nation have been under duress due to drought and flooding.
Jackson isn’t the only reminder and precursor of the dangers of disinvestment and ignoring the impact of climate change. Severe flooding in eastern Kentucky in July left thousands of people without water for weeks.
In June, about 165,000 people in Odessa were without water for nearly two days because of a break in the main line of the city’s deteriorating water system. The interruption of the water supply seen in Odessa this summer and throughout the state during the winter storm in February 2021 can be expected to happen more frequently.
In a report last year, the American Society of Civil Engineers, or ASCE, said that many of Texas’ wastewater systems couldn’t survive extreme events. They gave the quality of Texas’ drinking water infrastructure a grade of C-.
That’s the same grade they gave the nation’s entire infrastructure, which includes systems for drinking water and wastewater, roadways, electricity, mass transit and broadband access.
The passage in November of President Joe Biden’s $1.2 trillion Bipartisan Infrastructure Law is a major step toward improving that grade. But because of decades of neglect, the ASCE says, “We’re still just paying about half of our infrastructure bill — and the total investment gap has gone from $2.1 trillion over 10 years to nearly $2.59 trillion over 10 years.”
To close that gap, “we must increase investment from all levels of government and the private sector from 2.5 percent to 3.5 percent of U.S. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) by 2025.”
The past failures of governments to invest in infrastructure are responsible for what’s happening in Flint, Jackson and eastern Kentucky, and what will, inevitably, happen with greater frequency in Texas and across the United States. The failure to meaningfully address climate change only magnifies this.
A glass of clean drinking water will be a luxury.