China Environmental News Digest

Daily updated Environmental news related to China

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Russia, China water down problems

By Sergei Blagov Via Asia Times Online MOSCOW - As a toxic chemical slick that originated in China's Songhua River flows toward the border with Russia, officials of both countries are already working together to tackle the spill. The China Daily newspaper quoted sources from Heilongjiang province Environment Protection Bureau as saying that the slick was expected overnight Friday to enter the Heilong River (Amur River in Russia), the border between China and Russia. The spill, which occurred November 13, was caused by a blast at a chemical plant in Jilin City, Jilin province in northeast China. An estimated 100 tons of benzene and other chemicals polluted the nearby Songhua River, disrupting the lives of millions living near the water. The spill prompted joint action from the highest levels of government in China and Russia, though Chinese officials initially were mum about the incident before opening up discussions on dealing with the problem. Speaking to reporters earlier this week after Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and East Asia summits in Kuala Lumpur, Russian President Vladimir Putin said he and Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao agreed to clean up the slick and work more closely to protect the environment in the future. They met on the sidelines of the ASEAN forum on Monday, with Wen reportedly apologizing for the chemical spill. Putin the next day dispatched Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu to Russia's Far East to deal with a possible emergency in the Khabarovsk region. According to ministry estimates then, it was thought the slick could affect up to 70 Russian towns. As part of an agreement on Monday between Russia and China, experts from both countries began testing water from various parts of the river. The border between the neighbors is in the middle of the river. According to the agreement, both sides would take up to 72 water samples per day. All samples would be divided into three parts: one for each side plus a control sample for a possible arbitration over compensation. However, Russian experts now believe the benzene spill may not be as dangerous as previously expected. Pollution of the river was likely to dissipate to near permissible levels by the time it reached the city of Khabarovsk, said Vladislav Bolov, the head of the Russian emergency situations national monitoring and forecasting center. He previously estimated the pollution level in the Amur River to exceed the norm by seven to 10 times. The China Daily quoted Zhou Shengxian, director of the State Environment Protection Administration, as saying, "The concentration of the toxic chemicals in the slick has declined sharply since the spill, and is expected to be further diluted when it flows into the Heilong River." Meanwhile, Russian officials plan to seek compensation from China, despite Wen's apology. "I think that the guilty side should finance measures to tackle the environmental disaster," Alexander Kosarikov, deputy head of the environmental committee of Russia's lower house of parliament, told reporters in Moscow. Russia will file suits in international courts, said Viktor Shudegov, head of the committee for environment, education and science of the Russian Federation Council, the upper house of parliament. The Chinese should compensate for damages, but most likely would not do it voluntarily, he said. The slick also serves as a reminder of China's role in polluting the Amur, which provides water to 1 million residents of the Khabarovsk region. The Songhua River (known as Sungari in Russia) is an Amur tributary and a predominant source of pollution for Amur, the Russians say. Roughly 80% of all waste in Amur comes from Sungari, according to Russian estimates. The spill also reopens other contentious issues. Russian regional officials, water management experts and media in September reiterated warnings that Russia could suffer economic and ecological damage as a result of Beijing's plans to siphon off some Siberian water resources, notably the waters of Irtysh into western China. The Irtysh basin stretches from the Altai Mountains in China to Russia where the river flows into the Ob, after crossing eastern Kazakhstan. The Chinese are currently using about 10% of Irtysh water, but China plans to divert some 25% by 2020 or raise its Irtysh water use by 1-1.5 cubic kilometers per year, according to environmental officials in Russia's Omsk region. More than one million people in Russia could be left without adequate water supplies in case of uncontrolled water diversion from the Irtysh, officials say. Since the total volume of water provided by the Irtysh is about 9 billion cubic meters, the planned diversion via the 300-kilometer long, 22-meter wide Black Irtysh-Karamai irrigation canal could have serious repercussions not only for the economy and environment of Russia but also for Kazakhstan. The benzene contamination of the Amur and renewed fears over planned Chinese water diversion from the Irtysh followed rumors of Russian water sales to China, including a possibility of diverting water from Lake Baikal in Siberia to China's Inner Mongolia. Lake Baikal has been seen locally as a potential source for water exports. Since the early 1990s, experts in the Irkutsk region circulated plans to build a pipeline, several thousand kilometers long, from Baikal to China. Their vision involved from one to 10 cubic kilometers of Baikal water per year pumped to China. Rumors of Russian water sales to China have been sparked by growing water demand in China, where reportedly some two thirds of cities are facing water shortages. In May, Chinese officials dismissed these allegations, but some Russians remained wary. The Chinese chemical spill now seems to be a short-term blip in bilateral relations, causing relatively minor damage. The China Daily quoted Putin as saying the incident "should not harm bilateral relations". However, the slick is a reminder that water resources could become divisive eventually.

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