Drink Up in China: Polluted Water Supply Cut To City Of 9 Million

HARBIN, China, Nov 25 - Hundreds of villagers have been evacuated from their homes along a river in northeast China after an explosion at a petrochemical plant upstream dumped 100 tonnes of toxic chemicals in the water, local media said today.
In a sign of how the spill has jarred national nerves about widespread pollution, Premier Wen Jiabao has issued instructions demanding safe drinking water be ensured.
More than 300 residents of Niujiadian village and Gou island in Harbin, capital of Heilongjiang province, were evacuated by yesterday before an 80-km slick of water contaminated by benzene and other chemicals passed by on the Songhua river, the local Life Daily said.
Two reservoirs upstream discharged an unusually huge amount of water into the river to dilute the toxic spill, the website of the Harbin city government said.
Regions of Russia were also threatened by the spill.
The region of Khabarovsk in Russia’s Far East has been declared a state of emergency as the toxic benzene slick was expected to reach there as early as this week.
The Songhua feeds into the Heilong River, known as the Amur in Russian, which runs along the border between the two countries and is the main source of drinking water for more than 1.5 million inhabitants in Khabarovsk province.
Russian officials have started to test the waters of the Amur and expect the slick to arrive in Russia between tomorrow and Monday, reaching the province’s main city of Khabarovsk in early December.
However, China’s State Environmental Protection Administration said today the slick would only reach Russia in two weeks’ time because of the slow speed of the river’s current.
Russia’s emergency situations ministry said the city of Khabarovsk’s drinking water system would be blocked for around three days because of the slick.
The city will be supplied by some 60 drinking water tanks, aimed primarily at providing hospitals, orphanages and bread factories with drinking water, said an official from the ministry’s regional headquarters.
China’s Harbin, which draws its drinking water from the Songhua, has stored 7,150 tonnes of safe water and asked neighbouring cities to stop trucking in bottled water.
About 1,000 soldiers and paramilitary police have been deployed at several water plants to install filters that can more effectively absorb nitrobenzene, the main pollutant, the government website said.
Jiamusi city, downstream from Harbin, has no plans to cut off water supplies because it uses underground water, the official Xinhua news agency reported.
Reactions ranged from stoic acceptance to anxiety in Harbin, home to nine million people.
There were few signs of panic in the city. Most residents continued to work and shops and restaurants remained open despite water supply being cut off since Tuesday.
About 10,000 policemen patrolled the city’s streets, the Beijing News said.
Local hospitals had stockpiled antidotes to benzene-related poisoning, Xinhua said.
Officials warned residents to be on the lookout for symptoms of benzene poisoning, which can cause anaemia, other blood disorders and kidney and liver damage.
Heilongjiang Governor Zhang Zuoji ordered hospitals to brace for possible cases of poisoning and promised to drink the first glass of water from city taps once the pollution passes.
But Harbin’s mayor, Shi Zhongxin, said the water would at first be unsuitable for drinking. Water supplies could resume partially as early as Sunday, Xinhua has said.
The November 13 explosion at Jilin Petrochemical Co in neighbouring Jilin province was only a few hundred metres from the Songhua river.
The plant is owned by a subsidiary of China’s biggest energy company, China National Petroleum Corp.
But at the time officials there warned only of air and ground contamination, not water pollution. The blast killed five people.
The plant had insisted it was not responsible for the pollution. But the deputy general manager of China National Petroleum Corp. apologised to Harbin residents.

HARBIN, China, Nov 27 - Authorities in the Chinese city of Harbin restored running water to its 3.8 million residents today, five days after supplies were cut off due to a massive toxic spill in the city’s river, state media said.
The governor of Heilongjiang province, Zhang Zuoji, took the first drink of city water in Harbin, the provincial capital, after supplies were restored at 6pm (2100 AEDT), Xinhua news agency reported.
Some 100 tonnes of benzene were dumped into the Songhua river, which runs through Harbin, on November 13 after a huge explosion at a chemical plant in Jilin province, some 380km up river from the city.
Public water supplies to Harbin were cut on Tuesday as the government scrambled to bring in massive shipments of bottled water to avoid a public health crisis.
Water samples taken in the city now show no trace of the chemical, Xinhua quoted local officials as saying today.
The nitrobenzene level has met the national standard with a concentration of 0.0050 milligrams/litre,'' the agency said, quoting Lin Qiang, spokesman for the Heilongjiang Provincial Environmental Protection Bureau. The city will launch a three-colour water quality warning system to ensure the health of city residents, Xinhua said, adding that the local media would be used to keep city dwellers informed. Red will signify that the water is not suitable for any use, yellow that water can be used but not for drinking, and green that the water is suitable for all purposes, the report said. Premier Wen Jiabao, who arrived in Harbin yesterday, ordered officials to begin directing their attention towards the lower reaches of the Songhua, where the 80km toxic slick was heading after passing through Harbin. He insisted that pollution levels should be promptly and publicly reported. Local governments must follow the polluted waters through the cities, towns and villages along the river and make prompt public reports on the monitoring results,’’ Wen was quoted by the Heilongjiang Morning Post as telling officials.
Every available measure must be taken to ensure the drinking needs of the people and the quality of the water.'' Following the blast at a PetroChina benzene plant, officials in Jilin province covered up the water pollution disaster for 10 days. The calamity has been widely seen as a reflection of China's increasingly dismal environmental situation, which has been largely ignored during 25 years of fast-paced economic growth. Since the reform and opening began we have made huge accomplishments in the development of our economy and society, but this has come at a huge price to the environment,’’ Zhang told Xinhua in an interview.
The nature of this incident may appear to have been accidental, but from the background circumstances this was unavoidable,'' said the provincial governor. Despite panic buying of water and food supplies in Harbin last weekend, the city responded to the crisis rather calmly, with the government reporting zero cases of benzene poisoning and no pollution-related fatalities. Wen further ordered officials in Heilongjiang province to report on river monitoring efforts to their Russian neighbours. We must strengthen our cooperation and contacts with Russia in a friendly and responsible way and give them reports on the monitoring efforts,’’ he said.
China has formally apologised to its neighbour for the benzene spill, now heading for the Amur river - known in China as the Heilong - on their common border. The polluted Songhua is a major tributary of the Amur.
Yesterday in Beijing, Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing informed Russian ambassador Sergei Razov about the river pollution and expressed regret over possible harm to the Russian people.
The slick was expected to reach Russia within days.
President Vladimir Putin’s envoy to the Far East, Kamil Iskhakov, told regional media outlets yesterday that there was no reason for residents living along the Amur to panic.
We will know at least a week before the chemical spill reaches Khabarovsk,'' a city of 650,000 people, Iskhakov said. Despite its booming economy and rising living standards, China is facing a water crisis due to severe shortages caused by heavy pollution, which will only worsen if drastic measures are not taken. China was facing a water crisis more severe and urgent than any other country in the world’’, Vice Minister of Construction Qiu Baoxing said earlier this month before the benzene spill.
``We’ve got to solve the problem before it is too late,’’ warned Qiu.