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When the taps run dry
By Li Fangchao (China Daily)
Updated: 2005-11-26 05:34

HARBIN: Li Changjiang has many beer bottles put away in the closet, but there is no beer in them at all. These days they are full of water.

"But I don't have many utensils at hand at that time, and some say the water will be cut any moment," said Li, who is still a little worried when recalling the situation on Monday the day they were notified that the water supply would be suspended.

Harbin, capital of Northeast China's Heilongjiang Province, is experiencing one of its largest environmental crises chemical contamination of the Songhua River, which is the major water source of the city.

Water supply of the city, home to 3.8 -million people, was shut down completely on Wednesday midnight, and is expected to last until this Sunday.

Harbin residents are now coping with the aftermath of the water stoppage.

"Didn't you see the situation on Monday?" said Zhao Wanxia, Li's wife who works in a supermarket.

"At around 2 pm on Monday, many people began to rush in the supermarket," she said,

"They all have the same idea to store some drinking water.

"Ten hands reached for a single bottle of water who has ever seen that?"

She said the supermarket had called its security staff to maintain order on the spot.

"It is definitely not selling but handing out water," she said.

All the bottled water, beverages and even milk were gone within an hour, she said.

But with the help of someone at the supermarket, she bought two cartons of bottled water.

Li, who works in a local pharmaceutical factory, said he heard news about the shutdown of water supply from one of his colleagues on Monday.

"At first, I didn't believe it," he said.

However, only when he received a frantic call from his wife did he realize he must do something.

"I hurried home and began to store water with all the utensils I could find," he said.

The next day, when tap water was still available, he bought a pail and filled it to capacity.

And five days after the government's first announcement about the water stoppage, social order and people's life gradually returned to normal.

"The water in the beer bottles are used to flush the toilet, not for drinking," Li said.

He said that people told him the water stored on Tuesday is already contaminated and not suitable for drinking, though the local health department had guaranteed several times that the water is safe.

"I think we'd better avoid drinking it," he said.

In the morning, the whole family would eat the stored food, such as bread and cakes.

And for lunch, Zhao would bring her daughter Li Xin to the dining hall of Harbin Institute of Technology near their home.

"I know that they are using water from deep wells," she said.

"We adults can manage to eat fast food for four days, but the child needs nutrition," she said.

And for supper, the whole family would go to eat at the home of the grandparents of Li Xin.

"We now go there everyday to see if everything is OK," she said.

Instead of the panic buying spree early this week, the huge flow of bottled water from other places made bottled water available almost everywhere now.

"After all, it is just a regional water shortage, and there are numerous water companies inside and outside of the province," said Xu Dajiang, who works in Harbin Quality Check Institute, adding that he always had no fears that there will be a water shortage.

Xu said that his institute began to check the bottled water on Wednesday because there was a sudden surge in the number of bottled water.

"Each institute like ours is in charge of five water companies, two producing mineral water and another three producing purified water," he said.

"The purified water is usually okey as it has gone through more filtration than mineral water," he said.

The city's water-guzzling businesses, such as baths, car-washing facilities and beauty salons, have all been ordered to stop operation.

Moreover, the city's food catering businesses are also among the worst hit ones as people stayed away from eating outside fearing potentially contaminated water.

Many restaurants suspended operation. Those which remained running would put out a large board outside, saying: We are using the deep well water, 80 metres deep.

Harbin Brewery, now owned by Anheuser-Busch, the US beer giant, made striking advertisements in the local newspaper, claiming that all its beer are made using deep well water.

The reason for the largest and longest water stoppage in the history of the country was because of a chemical plant blast on November 13 in Jilin, a city of Jilin Province, which shares the same water source of Songhua River with Harbin.

The State Environment Protection Administration estimated that nearly 100 tons of benzene substances flowed into the Songhua River after the blast.

It is not the first time that the chemical plant became a major source of pollution of the Songhua River.

Zai Pingyang, deputy director of the Heilongjiang Environment Protection Science Institute, revealed that in the 1980s, the plant was responsible for a hydrargyrum pollution leading to the health check-ups for thousands of fishermen in Harbin.

"The pollution problem of the chemical plant will still be a hard nut to crack, which will stay in Songhua River for a long time," he was quoted by the Life Daily, a local newspaper in Harbin, as saying.

As one of the 10 cities most lacking in water in China, starting from 2003, Harbin launched its construction of a second water source Mopanshan Reservoir, 180 kilometres from the city, to solve the problem of relying largely on the Songhua River.

The new reservoir is expected to start sending its first batch of water early next year.

(China Daily 11/26/2005 page3)

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