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China's Pollution Disaster A Harbinger of Water Woes

by Wang Jiaquan

Northern China Facing Water Disaster (2004)

(IPS) BEIJING -- After a chemical leakage forced the shutdown of water supply in Harbin, capital of the north-eastern province of Heilongjiang, the realization has dawned that water security is no longer a challenge that city officials can contemplate at leisure.

Beyond the issue of water, the closure of water supply from Nov. 24-27 in the city with a population of 3.8 million people was also a challenge to a transparency drive by the government.

Already, it has led to the resignation of Xie Zhenhua, director of China's State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA), on Dec. 2. Xie is the first high-ranking official at the ministerial level to get the axe due to the environment disaster.

The water crisis in Harbin resulted from an industrial blast that happened on Nov. 13 in Jilin, an industrial city some 260 km to its southeast. Some 100 tons of toxic chemicals, including benzene, spilled into the Songhua river which serves as a major drinking water supply to Harbin downstream and wends its way further into Russia.

The chemical plant, run by the Jilin Petrochemical Company of the China National Petroleum Corp. is a few hundred metres from the banks of the 1,850 km long river. The discharge created an 80-km long slick.

Critics are now urging the government to draw lessons from the event and handle such environment crises in a more open and transparent manner.

Although Heilongjiang and Jilin share water from the same river, the provincial government of Heilongjiang downstream -- was not notified (by Jilin) about the impact until five days after the blast," says Hu Shuli, editor of ‘Caijing,' a popular business fortnightly, in its Nov. 28 issue. "Other government departments concerned, such as the ministries of water conservancy and construction, did not get involved until after Nov. 22."

The Russian government -- Heilongjiang shares a 3,002km long border with the adjacent country -- was also not informed about the river pollution till Nov. 22, according to ‘Caijing.'

It was an accident in which an important river was seriously polluted, affecting not only the two Chinese provinces but also Russia's far east. And yet it was regarded as a local issue initially, observes Hu in the article entitled ‘Environmental Issues Are Matters of Overall Importance.' "It was not appropriate to handle such an accident locally."

"To dilute the poisonous substances in the river, you need water discharged from reservoirs in the upper reaches, which requires the coordination from the Songhua-Liaohe river valley authorities under the ministry of water conservancy," says Hu. "When the urban water supply system is threatened, you need the ministry of construction to guarantee the water security and management."

"Yet, for nine days after the blast, the two central government departments in charge of these matters were not informed about the pollution and stood aside, which was really a pity," Hu adds.

Itself a victim of the pollution in the lower reaches of Songhua, the municipal government of Harbin also did not tell the public the whole story at first. It announced on Nov. 21 that the water supply was to shut down for four days "due to the necessity of network overhaul."

"Such far-fetched excuse was so against common sense that it aroused disbelief and real panic among citizens," remarks Hu. "The Harbin citizens calmed down only after the city government told the truth in another announcement the following day -- that the water body of the Songhua River might have been contaminated after the Jilin blast."

What the government should learn from the accident, she says, is "to be courageous enough to face crisis and handle it in a transparent and open manner." The worst thing to do, she warns, "is attempt to treat a major accident as a trifle" and cover it up. "A matter of overall importance, such as the SARS epidemic and avian flu, can never be disguised as a minor one."

"The chemical plant blast and ensuing contamination exposed poor crisis management from local governments and companies," notes an online critic identified as ‘Shujianzi' on the message board of the site,

As the explosion and contamination indicated, the chemical plant did not have a workable emergency scheme, says Shujianzi. "When the fire brigade tried to extinguish the fire with water, little did it occur to the local authorities how to treat the water afterwards, so that toxins were allowed to flow into the river without any treatment."

The online critic believes that the pollution could have been controlled within Jilin "if only the gate of waste discharge was closed in emergency and make-shift tanks were built to store the toxins."

Obviously, he points out, "the local officials in Jilin failed to do that" because they were in the upper reaches and did not have to drink the polluted water.

Another lesson is that a city should have more than one water source, says Liu Zhiqi, general secretary of the China Water Supply Association at the Ministry of Construction. Had Harbin an alternate water source, the city would not have been left without options and its people would not have suffered "thirst" for so long, he says.

In the initial panic, following the "cut-off-due-to-network- overhaul" announcement, residents scrambled to find potable water. Sixteen thousand tons of mineral and purified water were sold out -- the equivalent of the city's water consumption for 100 days in normal times, according to the Harbin government.

To cope with the crisis, the city has drilled 55 wells here, supplying 40,000 tons of water every day. The city's commercial administration has put in five million yuan (more than $600,000) to set up three to five water sales stations in each district.

But most of other large cities in China do not have an alternative water supply, Liu says. "When it comes to stability and reliability, a single water source can hardly meet the demands of production and daily life for a large city. And in a crisis like the one caused by the Jilin blast, supply becomes fragile and can cast a city into a helpless situation," he says.

Liu suggests that Chinese cities set up an emergency strategic water reserve. Groundwater might serve as a source for that reserve, he says.

A secure water supply system needs effective daily cooperation and coordination on water quality control and monitoring between different cities that share a river. Such cooperation and coordination, however, has been inadequate between Jilin and Heilongjiang, says Guo Chunjing, deputy president of the Heilongjiang Provincial Academy of Sciences.

This story was written for the Asia Water Wire

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Albion Monitor December 6, 2005 (

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