November 23, 2005

China city residents flee after taps turned off

By Guo Shipeng and Nick Macfie

BEIJING (Reuters) - Residents of one of China's biggest and
coldest cities, where water has been shut off for fear of
chemical contamination, are jamming the airport and railway
stations to get out, a witness said on Wednesday.

Taps were turned off in Harbin, capital of northeastern
Heilongjiang province and famous for its January snow and ice
show, at midnight on Tuesday after there had already been panic
buying of bottled water and food.

"Everyone wants to leave Harbin and it is very difficult to
buy tickets, just like during the Lunar New Year," a factory
manager told Reuters.

"All containers are being used to store water, including
the bathtub. It will be okay for four days, but not longer than

The water supply was shut down after a blast at a chemical
plant on November 13 in neighboring Jilin province only a few
hundred yards from the Songhua River, which supplies water to
Harbin, a metropolitan area of nine million people. Five people
were killed.

The Beijing Times newspaper said the pollutants in the
partly frozen river included benzene, an industrial solvent and
component of petrol, and that they had reached the city.

"Pollution is definite," said a regional water official,
who declined to give his name. "It has entered the Songhua
River and has affected the banks and lower reaches."

But state television said no pollutants had reached Harbin
by 11 a.m. (0300 GMT).

Fifteen hospitals were on standby to take in contamination
victims, Xinhua news agency said.

A government notice saying supplies would resume in four
days have been removed, raising doubts about how long the
crisis would last.


"The new notice does not necessarily mean an extension," a
Harbin government spokesman told Reuters. "But we will make a
decision after four days according to the water quality at that

"There is sufficient water. Residents have all stored a lot
and we have been rushing in water from other places. We also
have safe underground water."

Prices of bottled water have soared in recent days and
state media said shops had been ordered to restore prices to
their level before panic-buying set in.

U.S. Budweiser beer maker Anheuser-Busch Inc., which owns a
stake in Tsingtao Brewery Co. and runs a brewery in Harbin,
said it had not been affected because it uses well water.

"We can reassure consumers that our beers our fine and
safe," it said.

The Songhua River runs into Russia after several hundred
kilometers. A foreign ministry spokesman said on Tuesday he did
not know the extent of the pollution, if any, but that China
always took care of other countries' border water interests.

More than 16,000 tons of bottled water was being
transported to Harbin from nearby cities and provinces, Xinhua

Harbin, founded as a frontier town in the late 19th
century, is famed for old Russian and European-influenced

Llyn Bryant, a British teacher who has lived in Harbin for
six years, said he had been told by a school official that
people might have died from drinking contaminated water.

But he said he had not seen anybody taken ill.

(Additional reporting by Guo Shipeng and Niu Shuping)