China City Gets Water; Not Safe to Drink
By JOE McDONALD
Associated Press Writer
November 28, 2005, 8:26 AM EST
HARBIN, China -- Five days after an embarrassing
chemical spill, China's government celebrated the
return of running water to this city of 3.8 million as
a victory for the communist system while warning the
water was still not safe to drink.
The spill was a political disaster for President Hu
Jintao's government and cast a harsh light on the
environmental costs of China's breakneck development.
Hu's government issued apologies to China's public and
to Russia, where a border city downstream is bracing
for the arrival of the 50-mile-long benzene slick.
State media have accused officials of lying about and
trying to conceal the spill -- the result of a Nov. 13
chemical plant blast in Jilin, a city upstream from
Harbin, that killed five people and forced 10,000 more
to flee their homes.
But on Monday, media coverage was effusively upbeat,
with newspaper photos showing smiling children in
Harbin running their taps and water surging through
"We won!" said a headline in the newspaper Life News
below a photo of the provincial governor drinking a
glass of boiled tap water on Sunday.
But officials warned that the water wasn't immediately
safe to drink, or bathe in, after lying in underground
pipes for five days. They said they would let the
public know when the water was potable again but gave
no indication with that would be.
"It's back, but I don't know what I can use it for
yet," said Guan Hongya, a manager for a textile
company. "We can use it to flush the toilet, but
otherwise it might be no good."
Premier Wen Jiabao has promised to investigate the
disaster and punish those responsible. But state media
also have been portraying efforts to keep this major
industrial city supplied with drinking water as a
triumph for the communist system.
On Monday, some residents were still lining up in
sunny but subfreezing weather to get drinking water
from fire trucks and tankers sent by state companies.
State television in Heilongjiang province broadcast a
variety show featuring young women in jade-green
costumes dancing with empty 10-gallon water bottles on
their shoulders. A comedian played with a giant squirt
gun. Harbin is the capital of the province in China's
The audience included provincial Gov. Zhang Zuoji,
local officials and paramilitary police who had helped
to distribute water. Banners behind the stage showed
the names of nearby cities that sent fleets of water
trucks to Harbin.
There was no immediate announcement of when public
schools, shut since last week, would reopen.
The pollutants were expected to reach Russian
territory within days and Khabarovsk, a city of
580,000, within weeks. The Songhua flows into the
Heilong River, which crosses the border and becomes
the Amur in Russia.
A group of Russian experts flew to Harbin on Monday to
check on the spill's location and pollution levels,
the RIA Novosti news agency reported.
Russia's Emergency Situations Ministry said Monday it
was preparing to shut off running water and would
airlift activated carbon to help water treatment
facilities along the Amur River absorb the spill.
Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu said later
the deadly chemical could flow into Russia within the
next two weeks. He said officials were ready to block
running water and start water deliveries.
Vladislav Bolov, a ministry official in charge of
efforts to respond to the spill, said Monday the
benzene concentration in the Amur most likely will be
up to 10 times greater than normal.
"We have built up supplies of drinking water," Bolov
said at a news conference, according to the ITAR-Tass
Gennady Onishchenko, Russia's chief sanitary official,
urged Khabarovsk residents to create water reserves at
their homes before the running water was shut off.
Environmentalists have criticized China's response to
the spill and questioned the decision to allow a
facility handling such dangerous materials near a key
The plant is operated by a subsidiary of China's
biggest oil company, state-owned China National
Petroleum Corp., which has apologized for the
The announcement that Harbin would suspend water
service triggered panic-buying of bottled water, soft
drinks and milk. Schools closed and residents stocked
up on water in bathtubs and tea kettles.
But despite the initial anxiety, many took the water
cutoff stoically, lining up in biting cold for
supplies from trucks.
China has suffered a string of such disasters in
recent years, each leading to official promises of
more rigorous enforcement of environmental rules or
more sensitivity to public worries.
Industrial pollution is a sensitive issue, with
protests reported nationwide over complaints that
factory discharges are ruining crops and local water
Protesters often accuse officials of failing to
enforce environmental standards, either in exchange
for bribes or for fear of harming economic growth. The
government says all major rivers are dangerously
polluted, threatening water supplies for millions.
With its huge population, China ranks among countries
with the smallest water supplies per person. Hundreds
of cities regularly suffer water shortages.