Harbin Resumes Water Supply

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The city of Harbin, the capital of Northeast China's Heilongjiang Province, resumed water supply to its 3.8 million residents on November 27, five hours ahead of schedule. The city cut off its water supply for four days after a chemical explosion spilled some 100 tons of pollutants containing benzene and nitrobenzene into its main water source, the Songhua River. The disaster punctuates pressing environmental issues which have 300 million Chinese citizens drinking contaminated water on a daily basis—190 million of which fall ill as a result.

The water stoppage, which took place early on November 23, caused widespread panic. The ideal treatment, experts believed, was through activated carbon, which absorbs more than 80% of the contaminants. This treatment method has been adopted both at water sources and urban water plants. But by early afternoon on November 23, the city had only secured 700 tons of activated carbon, half of the estimated need. Once Xinhua News Agency—the only official news agency allowed by the the central propaganda department of the Chinese communist party to cover this issue—disseminated this information, the neighboring Hebei and Shanxi provinces and the Ningxia Autonomous Region, as well as regions as far as Shanghai and Zhejiang, committed an additional supply of carbon.

Under the coordination of the National Development and Reform Commission, China’s top macro-economic regulator, the Ministry of Railways and Ministry of Communications issued direct orders to open a “green path,” or expressway, to facilitate transportation of activated carbon to Harbin. Staff at major water plants in Harbin aided by armed police started to remove old anthracite filters on November 25, and by November 26, the city had received sufficient amounts of the carbon to gear its water treatment facilities into full operation.

To dilute the contamination at urban water sources, the Fengman and Nierji hydroelectric power plants on the upper reaches of the Songhua River also increased their water discharge volume into the river to 1,000 cubic meters per second and 120 cubic meters per second, respectively, enabling an early start on water treatment for the city. But it may be years before the toxic chemicals in the river dissipate. Environmental groups, such as Pacific Environment, are calling for greater transparency in regard to polluting factories affecting the region's water supply, which provides water to more than 10 million residents.