Photo by Andres Siimon on Unsplash
Jackson, Mississippi is currently on the brink of a water crisis due to massive environmental deregulation in the Reagen era. State Gov. Tate Reeves’ suggestion that privatizing water is an option for dealing with degraded water supply infrastructure is a worrying sign.
When torrential rain hit Jackson’s central water treatment plant, the outdated equipment and tanks struggled to cope with the significant change in water quality, causing the plumbing to depressurize. When plumbing loses its pressure, cracked or worn pipes create space, allowing groundwater to enter the plumbing system, introducing bacteria and pollutants such as lead into the water supply.
As a result, Jackson’s attention was drawn to boils in late July, which was recently overturned by a state health official’s regulation that young children and pregnant women should still boil tap water before consumption.
The crisis in the predominantly black capital is the legacy of the white flight and Ronald Reagan’s changes to the Clean Water Act, which ended in a huge funding cut for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which pumped federal grants into municipalities to help to help with water treatment. The rollback left states fending for themselves against water supply problems, most notably among poor populations in cities with high numbers of BIPOC residents. EPA grants suddenly became meager federal loans that government organizations had to steer.
Republican Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves said in the midst of the crisis he was “open to all options” and “privatization is on the table.” Of course, a public system doesn’t seem like an option. In fact, the push to make water a commodity rather than a public right is not unique to the United States. The World Bank’s private sector arm, the International Finance Corporation, is the largest single financier of water projects in the world. Since the 1990’s, over 250 contracts have been awarded to private companies to help with water supply and sanitation in third world countries.
So far, only the governments of Great Britain and Chile have completely handed over their water supply and sanitation to private bodies.
Influenced by the broader left-wing Pink Tide movement in Latin America with its recent election of a socialist president, Chile was a laboratory for US-cooked neoliberalism in the late 20th century.
Laissez-faire ideas from neoclassical economics, spearheaded by Milton Friedman, a Chicago School of Economics (CSE) scholar, were tested in Chile under the brutal Pinochet dictatorship, which was supported by the US. The “Chicago Boys” were a group of Chilean economists trained at the CSE under figures like Friedman, who later served as economic advisers to the Chilean government and implemented neoliberal policies on a large scale.
Ronald Reagan took inspiration from the Chilean economic experiment in his deregulation policy and led to issues such as what is happening in Jackson. It is sickeningly poetic how Gov. Tate Reeves is now, in the face of this interconnected history, offering the private option that amounts to a self-fulfilling prophecy about the “effectiveness” of the market in mediating public health crises.
After all, water should not be treated like a commodity. If a person has a two to three day window before death without water, water should not be commodified. It should have a progressively funded state monopsony alongside things like education and health care — and that’s not asking much.