Water Panic in Sichuan

Residents say authorities were slow to respond to a pollution crisis in southwestern China.
2011-07-29
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A screengrab from an undated video shows residents queuing up to fill buckets with water in Mianyang.
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Authorities in the southwestern Chinese province of Sichuan have announced that pollution in Mianyang city's drinking water has now cleared, following panicked scenes as residents tried to access water trucks or queued to buy bottled water at supermarkets.

The government says the city's water is now safe to drink, after it announced that manganese pollution had "exceeded limits" on Thursday.

Local residents reported chaotic scenes as people poured onto the streets with buckets to fill up at government water trucks, sparking traffic jams and long queues outside supermarkets.

"Basically we were going to rely on bottled water bought from the supermarket," said a Mianyang resident surnamed Xia. "But the water company hasn't had time to deliver water, and we are all queuing up to draw water [from trucks.]"

He said the authorities were struggling to keep order as panicked local residents rushed to the trucks carrying buckets and other receptacles.

"There are too many people trying to draw water," Xia said, adding that police had been dispatched to the scene to maintain order.

Manganese pollution

Mianyang city authorities discovered on Wednesday that manganese levels in the drinking water supplied from nearby Wudu reservoir had "exceeded limits," though they didn't say by how much.

"At noon on July 26, following tests by the municipal environmental protection bureau, we discovered that the water at the Qilu bridge section of the Fu River contained levels of manganese over the legal limit," municipal official Kou Zisheng told reporters on Thursday.

"After examination of the water by water quality experts, it was determined that the reason for the unusual water quality results was that mining waste water from ... Songpan county had overflowed into the Wudu reservoir," Kou said.

Official media reported that the price of a box of mineral water had skyrocketed from 12 yuan (U.S. $1.85) to 25 yuan (U.S. $3.87) in the wake of the announcement.

In nearby Suining and Jiangyou cities, residents also took to the streets in search of clean water, in spite of assurances from local officials that the city's water supply was clean.

"You can use it [for washing], but you can't drink it," said a Jiangyou resident surnamed Wang.

A Jiangyou resident surnamed Lu said there were also problems with the water supply in the city.

"They haven't supplied the water," Lu said. "There's no water at all higher than the third floor. It's very inconvenient because it is very hot, and we can't even take a shower."

Lu slammed Jiangyou authorities for failing to make an announcement about water quality, as had been done in Mianyang.

"It's not fair on residents not to give out timely information," Lu said. "There are a lot of strong opinions about this."

Slow response

Even in Mianyang, netizens said the government took too long to report the problem.

"They saw from measurements on July 25 that the manganese levels in the Fu River at Mianyang had gone over the limit," wrote a local resident in an online post.

"Yet they didn't report it until 6:00 p.m. on July 26. Luckily, they were 'taking it extremely seriously,' so we only drank contaminated water for one day."

Another netizen wrote: "Perhaps it's a bit like the rail crash, where some people resign, and some people apologize?"

Mianyang emergency response office director Lu Liangjun told reporters on Thursday that recent heavy rains had diluted the city's water supply, bringing the manganese down to safe levels.

"The heavy rainstorms in Mianyang in the past two days ... have increased the volume of water in upstream reservoirs, and diluted it," Lu said. "The effect of this has been very marked."

"The [manganese] levels have shown a marked decrease, and the two big hydroelectric plants are able to use the latest technology to get rid of the manganese entirely," he added.

Chinese netizens have expressed widespread anger over a slew of safety scandals in recent years, ranging from melamine in infant formula, to lead poisoning by battery plants, to the high-speed rail crash last Saturday that killed 40 people.

They frequently slam officials for a lack of transparency over hazards to the health and safety of the local population.

Reported by Ding Xiao for RFA's Mandarin service, and by Chan Si-long for the Cantonese service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.

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