Harbin’s water emergency: Fudging on leak let rumours fuel the fears

The South China Morning Post

Thursday, November 24, 2005
Copyright The South China Morning Post
The central government’s admission yesterday that the Songhua river was
severely polluted in a chemical factory explosion last week confirmed
what many people had suspected. A statement issued by the State
Environmental Protection Administration explained how the pollution had spread
and did not seek to play down the seriousness of the problem. This was
a welcome move to clear up uncertainty. But it was overdue. The
announcement came 10 days after the blast in Jilin . More worryingly, the
chemical plant had denied any pollution spill. And officials downstream in
Harbin had initially claimed that the city’s water supply was being
suspended in order to conduct maintenance – when the real reason was the
pollution.
The way in which the affair has been handled raises fresh concerns
about the willingness of mainland officials to disclose bad news.
Thankfully, it looks as if the situation in Harbin can be controlled. The
pollution has been diluted as it has spread downstream. Hopefully, the water
supply to the city’s three million affected residents can soon be
resumed. But the full impact of the environmental problem is not yet known.
Harbin residents, meanwhile, remain nervous and unsure whether they
have been given the full picture. It is too easy to understand why.
The leaders of Harbin, capital of Heilongjiang province , said on
Monday that the taps would have to be turned off for four days to allow
maintenance works to be carried out to pipes. This was not a convincing
explanation. It would be a strange time to conduct maintenance works in
the northern city, when sub-zero temperatures make the soil as hard as
rock.
It is not surprising, therefore, that the announcement prompted rumours
which ranged from an imminent earthquake to fears that the Songhua
River had been laced with cyanide that could kill as many as 200 million
people. The rumours and accompanying criticism persuaded the municipal
government to admit on Tuesday that pollution resulting from the blast in
Jilin was their real concern. Now that this has been confirmed, many
questions remain.
It is unclear why Harbin authorities did not explain the situation to
their residents from the start. They might have been concerned about
causing panic in the city. But the rumours fuelled by the failure to make
the situation known increased, rather than eased, people’s fears.
A lack of co-ordination between different authorities has also been
evident. The river is 1,927km long and flows through 30 mainland cities.
But there was no common contingency plan to deal with the emergency. It
appears that local officials in Jilin, Songyuan and Harbin all acted
independently in response to the accident in Jilin. These large cities
have taken what they consider to be suitable precautions to protect their
populations. But that protection is not available to rural farmers and
herders from smaller communities along the river. It is not immediately
clear if they have been told of the potential risks they face in
drawing water directly from the river.
After flowing through Jilin and Heilongjiang, the Songhua River crosses
into Russia. By the time the contaminated body of water crosses the
border, it will hopefully have been sufficiently diluted to pose no more
health risks. But the possibility of similar mishaps in the future
souring not just inter-provincial, but also international, relations should
not be overlooked. There is a need to ensure the provinces come to
sensible arrangements about sharing common resources such as a river and
coping with emergencies that require cross-boundary co-ordination. This
will require the central government to assert its authority. It is to
be hoped the pollution spill will be contained without too much damage
being done. But the situation could have been much worse.


SCMP.com

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