China water supplies: A continuing threat
WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 11, 2006
Two recent chemical spills have forced officials in different regions of China to take emergency precautions to protect water supplies for millions of people - the latest examples of the environmental and public health threats posed by industrial pollution.
The new spills were reported in the past week along the Yellow River in northern China and on a tributary of the Yangtze River in southern China's Hunan Province.
The incidents came barely a month after a benzene spill on the Songhua River forced the provincial capital of Harbin to shut off the water supply to its 3.8 million residents. That spill became an international scandal because officials in northeastern China initially tried to hide the problem.
The domestic media coverage of the two recent spills suggests that the Songhua scandal has created pressure on local governments to stop concealing such potentially dangerous incidents. But some experts also believe that the flurry of news coverage is merely revealing how common such accidents have become.
"These things happen all the time, all over the place, probably on a weekly basis," said Elizabeth Economy, the author of "The River Runs Black," a recent book on China's environmental issues.
Unquestionably, water pollution is an extreme problem in China. Government studies show that 70 percent of the country's lakes and waterways are polluted. Earlier this year, a vice minister for water resources estimated that 360 million rural residents lacked safe drinking water. Water pollution also has been blamed for high cancer rates in villages along several Chinese waterways.
Local officials responding to the two new spills say neither has forced shutdowns of municipal water systems.
In Hunan Province, a spill occurred Jan. 4 in the industrial city of Zhuzhou after workers cleaning up a waste-water ditch mistakenly diverted the sewage water into the nearby Xiangjiang River.
The water was laced with cadmium, which has been linked to neurological disorders and cancer. Initial water quality tests showed that cadmium levels in the river were at least 25 times above the safety standard.
Last month, a different cadmium spill on the Beijiang River in Guangdong Province threatened water supplies to millions of people and forced some temporary water supply shutdowns in the densely populated region.
In Hunan, Jiang Yimin, head of the provincial environmental protection bureau, said that officials had used neutralizing chemicals to dilute the toxicity. He said the 100-kilometer, or 60-mile, slick has already flowed past the provincial capital of Changsha without a problem.
The city draws its drinking water from the Xiangjiang, and Jiang said that tests initially showed that cadmium levels at city intake pipes were five times above the national safety standard.
But Jiang said the water was treated at municipal water quality plants so that it would be safe for public consumption. Jiang said the toxicity of the river water had now dropped to the point that it met quality standards.
He also denied a report in China Youth Daily, a Beijing-based newspaper, which accused Hunan officials of intentionally playing down the levels of contamination to prevent a public panic.
"All of the downstream cities have met the water quality standard," Jiang said by telephone.
A second major accident occurred Jan. 6 when a spill in Henan Province created a slick of diesel fuel flowing down the Yellow River.
By the time the slick had reached neighboring Shandong Province, state media reported that officials had shut down 63 pumping stations along the river, including in the provincial capital of Jinan. Officials in Jinan said the city would instead depend on water from reservoirs.
Meanwhile, a smaller spill was reported Jan. 6 in central China along the Qijiang River, after a sulfur leak forced communities along the river to go without running water for two days.
The government has made it plain that it does not want to repeat the mistakes made during the Songhua spill. This week officials announced plans to spend an additional $3 billion to clean up the river.
Last Sunday, the State Council, or China's cabinet, announced a new national emergency response plan, partly in response to the Songhua controversy. This plan requires that natural disasters, major accidents and other incidents threatening public health should be reported to the State Council within four hours.
The plan also requires that the public should be given timely and accurate information through the Chinese media.
Economy, the author, applauded the idea of a faster, more public response but said it did not represent a response to the country's overall water pollution problem. She noted that illegal dumping into rivers was an enormous problem and that environmental officials lacked the political power to stop it.
Indeed, the Xiangjiang River suffered such serious pollution problems even before the spill last week that local legislative delegates have complained that normal discharges of cadmium into the river have long exceeded national standards.
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