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China Admits Toxic Spill is Threat to City's Water
Published on Thursday, November 24, 2005 by the Guardian / UK
China Admits Toxic Spill is Threat to City's Water
by Jonathan Watts Harbin
 

A river of toxic water was coursing towards one of China's biggest cities last night, threatening to contaminate local pipes and forcing millions of residents to prepare frantically for four days without water supplies.

The government admitted that water supplies in Harbin, in north-eastern China, could be compromised by a chemical spill that released more than 100 times the safe level of benzene into a major river 10 days ago.

Toxic fears spread hundreds of miles along the Songhua river from Heilongjiang province across the Russian border, but the panic was most intense in Harbin itself, where local media said crowds were fleeing the city through the railway station and airport.

The mains were temporarily reopened during the morning so local people could fill bath tubs and buckets with water to see them through the next few days. But from this morning - when the pollution hits the city - 3.8m residents in the centre of Harbin will be unable to turn on a tap or flush a toilet.

There have been no reports of illnesses, but hospitals have been ordered to prepare for possible contamination victims and hundreds of schools have been closed due to fears about sanitation. To minimise the risk of dehydration, municipal officials are using tankers to provide 16,000 tonnes of drinking water and have ordered the reopening of 368 old wells.

While the true extent of the risk to human health remains unclear, the public's sense of unease has been heightened by mixed signals coming from the authorities, who have taken more than a week to raise the alarm.

The toxins were released into the Songhua river on November 13 by an explosion at a chemical plant hundreds of miles upstream in Jilin province. Five people died in the blast at the factory, which is owned by the China National Petroleum Company - one of the biggest corporations in the country.

The state environmental protection agency said it had started monitoring water safety levels within three hours of the explosion at the plant, yet its report - that 108 times the safe level of benzene seeped into the river - only became public knowledge yesterday.

The pollution belt now stretches for more than 50 miles. Although the toxins have been diluted by tributaries, the most recent survey showed benzene and other toxins were still at 30 times normal levels. With the river moving slowly, at only 5mph, the toxic waste is expected to hit Harbin at 5am this morning and stay for several days until it is flushed away over the weekend.

The contaminated waters could reach the Russian border and the connected Amur river early next week, though they will be increasingly diluted by then. Russian officials said they were taking no chances, but added that the threat was insignificant. "The distance from here to Harbin is too big," said Alexander Burgas, of the emergency ministry in the city of Khabarovsk, 620 miles to the east.

But in China, questions about the environmental disaster are spreading beyond Harbin. According to the Xinhua news agency, the provincial government is so concerned that it has warned city residents to stay away from the river to avoid possible exposure to airborne toxins.

Upstream, there have been reports that many fish have died and, contrary to earlier denials, it appears that at least two cities, Songhua and Jilin, have shut down water supplies because of health fears.

But the Chinese authorities have been reluctant to acknowledge what happened. Until yesterday, the official explanation for the prolonged water cut was "maintenance work". Officials said reports of contamination were "just rumours". Even though Harbin authorities now admit pollution is the main fear, the neighbouring province of Jilin still refuses to acknowledge the explosion caused dangerous levels of contamination in the river.

It would not be the first time that local authorities in China attempted to cover up an economically damaging pollution scandal. In recent years, local media have exposed several "cancer villages" and "black rivers" caused by toxic outflows from poorly regulated chemical factories.

The environment agency estimates that 70% of China's main rivers and lakes are so polluted that their water is undrinkable. Conservation groups believe the contamination and overexploitation of water supplies pose a major threat to the growth and environmental wellbeing of China. "Factory owners must be more responsible and the authorities must release information about pollution more quickly to those likely to be affected," said Li Feng of the World Wildlife Fund.

In Harbin, locals faced a choice - fill up or flee. At the local airport, travel agents have reported a sharp increase in passengers leaving the city. "We are running out of tickets," said Wang Hongwei, at the D800 agency. "There are three times more people than usual coming to buy tickets ... many people are leaving."

Those who cannot afford to leave are ready to dig in. "We have filled our bath and buckets with enough water for 10 days so I am not worried," said a local taxi driver who did not give his name. "But it is an inconvenience. How can we do without water? It is more essential than food."

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2005

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