On November 21, residents of Harbin received some disturbing news. City officials unexpectedly announced that they would be shutting off the water supply for at least four days for “maintenance” of water pipes.


Local citizens were immediately suspicious. The temperature in Harbin is usually below minus 20 Celsius in the winter, and few believed the government would choose the frigid winter, in a place where temperatures hover at minus 20 Celsius, to fix water pipes. Rumors immediately began to fly around the city, including one that an earthquake was imminent.


The announcement also led to a mild panic as people began pouring water into every pot and bucket they could find, including bath tubs. People also raided local shops, buying out the supply of bottled water. Those that could afford it, and who could find an available air, bus or train ticket out of the city, were soon gone.


The next day, the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) dropped an even bigger bombshell. It said that an explosion nine days earlier at a petrochemical plant in neighboring Jilin Province, a few hundred yards from the Songhua River, had caused “major pollution” on the river. Ironically, the incident occurred at Jilin Petrochemical, a subsidiary of state giant PetroChina, which was one of 21 Chinese companies that won an “National Environmental Friendly Enterprise” award from the government the month before.


Fears rose when the state media said the pollutants in the partially frozen river included 100 tons of benzene and other toxic chemicals at levels more than 100 times higher than national safety levels. Benzene, a solvent and component of petrol, can cause liver and kidney damage, and possibly death. It’s also considered a carcinogen, and has been linked to leukemias, lymphomas.


Officials said the large benzene slick would float down into an area of the river where Harbin got most of its drinking water by Wednesday morning, clearing the area by Friday afternoon, when it would then turn toward Russia, several hundred kilometers past Harbin.


With public anger mounting, the government tried to do a bit of damage control. Governor Zhang Zuoji called the deception a “benevolent lie,” saying the government was “concerned that the public couldn’t understand the sudden catastrophe.” Meanwhile, the Chinese  leadership began doing what it does best when facing a real crisis–it used it’s organizational muscle to mobilize large groups of people into action.


Fifteen hospitals were put on standby alert to treat possible poisoning cases, citizens were advised to avoid the river, and schools were closed. Then, cities around China started trucking in loads of bottled water.


Water from a reservoir was discharged into the river to try to dilute the pollutants, and city workers used pick axes to crack the ice on the river to hasten the flow of polluted water through the city. At the same time, other workers began to drill hundreds of new wells as soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army began installing charcoal filters to absorb nitrobenzene in the water.


The government’s belated attempts were welcomed, and calm soon returned to the city. But for many people, the response was seen as being too late. It had taken the government 10 days to own up to the truth at a time of a catastrophe. Meanwhile, farmers upriver apparently had continued to use the water, unaware of what had happened.


A toll on the environment

The incident focused new attention on China‘s runaway economic development and the toll this has taken on the environment. Environmentalists said the incident was a manifestation of a much more serious structural problem within the country.


In an article written for Time magazine on November 27, Elizabeth Economy, director of Asian Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, and the author of “The River Runs Black,” described a grim situation. “China‘s rapid economic development, endemic corruption and highly decentralized political system have produced a life-threatening environmental crisis for hundreds of millions of Chinese.”


Economy quoted the Minister of Water Resources as saying that that 300 million Chinese drink contaminated water on a daily basis. Of these, 190 million drink water so contaminated that it’s making them sick, and more than 30,000 children die each year from diarrhea due to consuming dirty water. She also quoted Wang Bin, director of the Ministry of Health’s Women’s Health Division, who has linked environmental pollution to the 25% rise in birth defects recorded between 2001 and 2003.


Factories pump waste and sewage into waterways and tributaries beside towns and villages that have alarming rates of cancer, miscarriages and other medical problems related to pollution. Meanwhile, SEPA reports that more than 75 percent of the water flowing through cities here is deemed unsuitable for drinking or fishing, and 30 percent of the river water monitored by the government is not suitable even for agriculture or industry.


Jiang Wenran, acting director and associate professor of political science of the China Institute at the University of Alberta , in Canada, says the problem is “structural.” “China is growing and racing ahead with such speed that such accidents are bound to happen one way or the other,” he says. “Then you have the money mentality of this primitive form of capitalism, and cutting corners wherever possible.”


“I hope this is a wake-up call to the entire country and the leadership to look seriously at what they are pursuing and at what cost,” he says.


Environmental Organizations to be empowered

Experts say that while there have been some improvements have been made, and that SEPA has worked hard to enforce a plethora of new rules and regulations, there are still too many people in power who see environmental protection as an obstacle to economic development.


As a result, SEPA is referred to as a toothless tiger, often undermined by not only local officials and factory managers, but even central government ministries and departments. This point was underlined In a bold and telling comment made by SEPA deputy director Pan Yue earlier this year, when he suggested that his agency should “smash the monopoly interests of some powerful ministries and enterprises” and focus government funds in the development of new energy sources and a recycling economy.


SEPA has little influence over regional EPA branches, who are more beholden to local governments. “The EPAs get their funding from the local government and so don’t serve as a system of checks and balances,” says Wen Bo, the Beijing representative for Pacific Environment, a San Francisco environmental organization that has been working in China for several years. “And so, local governments can do what they want.”  And with fines too low to serve as a deterrent, environmental laws are often ignored with impunity.


While SEPA claimed a victory of sorts early this year when it temporarily shut down 30 projects for not carrying out proper environmental impact assessments, the projects paid small fines or did their own studies and immediately went back to work.


“With few incentives for factory managers and local officials to do the right thing, and even fewer disincentives to do the wrong thing, environmental officials face an uphill battle,” writes Economy.


Pacific Environment quotes anonymous sources as saying that local government agencies have actually covered up chronic pollution for years. “These sources believe that polluters in the region provide payments to local government officials to continue polluting, rather than implementing environmental measures,” the organization charged in a report published on November 29. The report quoted unnamed Chinese environmentalists as saying that local journalists were pressured by the government not to report on a state factory that polluted the Songhua River for years, due to the company’s regional economic importance.


“With little government control, and as long as there is money to be made, you’re going to see more and more of these types of accidents,” predicted James Harkness, a longtime China-based environmentalist and a former country representative for the World Wildlife Fund. 


Whom to take the blame?

Harbin‘s water supply was turned back on a few days after the benzene passed through the area, and Governor Zhang showed his confidence by making a public display of drinking a glass of water from the river. There were indications, however, that the threat to the river was not completely over.

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