Holding Back the Tide of Water Privatization

At the end of August, severe storms hit Mississippi, and the Pearl River flooded, rendering the city of Jackson’s water treatment facilities inoperable. Now approximately 150,000 residents do not have access to safe drinking water. The crisis in Jackson has exposed a long-standing history of racism, white flight, and state sabotage of a majority Black city. Tate Reeves, the Republican governor of Mississippi and himself the product of the suburbs to which white residents fled, has suggested that privatizing Jackson’s water supply could fix the problem. Water activists say this cure would likely be worse than the disease.

After decades of disinvestment in water systems, cities across the country are vulnerable to same infrastructure failures that occurred in Jackson. Water corporations then use the breakdowns as opportunities to purchase locally run water systems, claiming that they have the money needed to upgrade and maintain infrastructure. In Pittsburgh, lack of funding for the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority (PWSA) led to the deterioration of the physical infrastructure and elevated levels of lead in the water. These problems were exacerbated when the government entered into a public-private partnership with Veolia.

Community members in Pittsburgh organized a coalition called Our Water Campaign, and pushed back on further privatization efforts, forcing the city to provide safe, affordable water and creating a democratic means of keeping the PWSA accountable to the residents it serves.

I spoke with two participants in the Our Water campaign, Anna Coleman and Caitlin Schroering, and Marcela González Rivas, an associate professor of public and international affairs at the University of Pittsburgh. González Rivas’s research focuses on water governance and equity, and she authored, along with Schroering, the paper, “Pittsburgh’s Translocal Social Movement: A Case of the New Public Water.”

—Hadas Thier

Hadas Thier: Jackson, Mississippi, is currently facing a water crisis, decades in the making. Given your experience organizing around Pittsburgh’s public water system, what is your reaction to the situation in Jackson?

Anna Coleman: Jackson is the worst-case scenario for what can happen when our water systems are neglected. We see disinvestment and racist policies combine with how long it’s been since these systems have been updated. Our water systems are incredibly vulnerable all throughout the country. It’s not surprising, but still the severity of it is outrageous. It’s terrible and incredibly disheartening to see it impact people’s lives so heavily. It’s a reminder of why it’s so critical to continue to organize around our water systems.

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