Wednesday, November 23, 2005

HARBIN, China — With temperatures dipping to minus 10, this frigid northeastern Chinese city was digging 100 wells yesterday after shutting down its water system to protect residents from toxic benzene spewed into a river by a chemical factory explosion.

Harbin, known abroad for its winter “ice lantern” festival, closed schools and was trucking in bottled water after suspending water supplies at midnight Tuesday. Service was restored for a few hours yesterday but stopped by evening.

The announcement of the shutdown set off panicked buying of bottled water, soft drinks and milk, leaving supermarket shelves bare. Families filled bathtubs and buckets before taps ran dry.

China’s central government confirmed for the first time yesterday that the shutdown was a result of a “major water pollution incident” in the Songhua River after the Nov. 13 explosion, which killed five persons in the nearby city of Jilin.

The explosion, which forced the evacuation of 10,000 people, was blamed on human error in a tower that processed benzene.

In neighboring Russia, news reports said concern was growing over the pollution threat in the border city of Khabarovsk, about 435 miles downriver from Harbin.

The benzene stretches about 50 miles along the river, with levels at some places 30 times the acceptable standard, said the official Xinhua News Agency. It said the chemical was expected to reach Harbin early this morning and should be gone by Saturday.

Yesterday, the city of 3.8 million people was drilling 100 wells that were expected to produce 21 million gallons of water per day, said Zhang Dingbang, deputy secretary of the municipal government, according to Xinhua.

The city has 918 wells supplying hospitals and some residential areas.

The disaster highlights the precarious state of China’s water supplies. The country is trying to meet competing demands from its 1.3 billion people and its booming industry, while the government says major rivers are dangerously polluted.

China, the most populated country in the world, ranks among countries with the lowest water supply levels per person. Hundreds of cities regularly suffer water shortages for drinking or industry.

Protests have erupted in rural areas throughout China over complaints that pollution is ruining water supplies and damaging crops. Protesters often accuse officials of failing to enforce environmental rules either in exchange for bribes or for fear of hurting local business.

Harbin is one of the coldest places in China. During its ice lantern festival, giant slabs of ice cut from the Songhua are used to construct replicas of famous buildings and artworks in public parks.

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