Jackson, the small capital city of the US state of Mississippi, is at this writing (4 September) without safe drinking water, and has only intermittent supplies of piped water of any quality. Unfortunately, much of the best media coverage of this humanitarian emergency, in outlets like the Washington Post and The New York Times, appears to be paywalled, although readers with a university affiliation should be able to access it through Nexis. (BBC News, which finds investigative journalism easier outside the UK, is a notable exception.) The proximate cause is flooding of the Pearl River, which has disabled the city’s water treatment plant. However, the New York Times’ coverage sums up the deeper problem of politically driven infrastructure neglect, one all too familiar in US cities: ‘For decades, the city’s population has been shrinking, an exodus propelled in large part by the flight of white residents — along with their tax dollars — to surrounding affluent suburbs where, by and large, the water on Tuesday was flowing just fine.’
Jackson’s situation brings to mind the title of what I think is still the best book on the politics of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, although numerous later journal articles provide added perspective: There Is No Such Thing as a Natural Disaster. The same analytical point was made several years pre-Katrina by sociologist Eric Klinenberg, in a ‘social autopsy’ of the 1995 Chicago heat wave in which people in the city’s poorest and most African-American neighbourhoods, unable to afford air conditioning, barricaded themselves in their flats while an indifferent and under-resourced city government did not respond adequately. Water quality and availability crises are in fact becoming all too routine in US cities, as pointed out in a superb 2019 doctoral thesis by anthropologist Nadia Gaber and a special issue of the journal Critical Sociology on the multi-year water crisis in deindustrialised Flint, Michigan.
Although some such disasters may be triggered by extreme weather events, they are not in any meaningful sense natural. Rather, they are traceable directly to the hegemony of neoliberal ideas and associated urban austerity – and, in the US case, to a history of systemic racism that goes back literally centuries. Since such weather events are likely to occur with increasing frequency as the planet’s climate changes, it is worth reflecting carefully on what these observations mean for health inequalities. For example, they not only add to the already formidable health case against austerity but also would appear to bolster the arguments for climate reparations, not only across national borders but also within them. Observer columnist Kenan Malik notes a broader pattern of purposive reductions in the capacity of states to help those they rule, tracing this (correctly in my view) to the infamous 1975 Trilateral Commission report on The Crisis of Democracy. Here, again, the resulting humanitarian emergencies are not natural. They are features, not bugs in the neoliberal vision of the world. Facing a cost of living crisis and a probable prime minister who rails against “the lens of redistribution,” millions of people in the UK are going to experience the sharp, sometimes deadly edge of that vision during the coming winter.