Authorities in the central Chinese province of Shanxi have detained an unknown number of villagers who protested the diversion of their drinking water supply following clashes this week, residents said on Wednesday.
The detentions came after a police raid in the early hours of Tuesday morning on Tiejiangpu village in Shanxi's Baode county sparked demonstrations by local people, villagers said.
"We held a rally that morning at the county government offices," said a protester who took part in the demonstration. "There were people there with banners, protesting."
"The banners called on the village [ruling Chinese Communist Party] secretary to step down, that sort of thing."
He said the standoff was sparked when villagers discovered in early August that officials had secretly installed a pipeline to extract water from a well they rely on for drinking water, and villagers had cut it in protest.
"They were cursing out the government ... saying they are evil, because when the villagers went to protest, they detained them," the Baode county resident said.
He said "three or four" people had already received jail terms of seven years in connection with the dispute.
"Corruption is very serious ... in the Baode county government," he said, adding that the local government had yet to respond to complaints about the extraction of water.
Photos posted to the social media site Baidu Tieba showed a group of people carrying banners, which read: "Dismiss the worthless Party secretary," "Please release those who were detained," and "Justice for the people of Tiejiangpu village!"
Calls to a number of Tiejiangpu residents, including the local Communist Party committee and local businesses, resulted in a signal error message during office hours on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, calls to the publicly listed number for the Baode county government offices resulted in a "no such number" message, while calls to the county government's propaganda department rang unanswered during office hours.
However, a resident of nearby Luzigou village surnamed Wang said he knew about the dispute.
"The people there say that the government has cut off and is exploiting their water source, and that they are very unhappy about this," Wang said.
He said that since the government had extracted the water, local people had been forced to pay to imported water of a lower standard than that in their own well.
"This place has some mountain spring sources, where the water is clean and sweet," Wang said. "It is free to drink this water, like in nearby Guojiatan."
"But the government has caused a lot of problems over there," he said.
According to messages posted to popular social media networks, journalists from Huanghe TV had already been to investigate the villagers' complaints, but no reports had been seen in public since.
Recent data from Beijing show that around 90 percent of groundwater in China is polluted, much of it severely, with activists blaming local governments for protecting polluting enterprises.
In a recent survey of water quality in 118 cities across China, 64 percent of cities had "severely polluted" groundwater, Xinhua news agency quoted experts from the ministry of water resources as saying.
Activists say lack of access to clean groundwater has dire consequences for hundreds of millions of rural residents, who rely on such water both for personal use and for watering their crops.
Rapidly worsening air and water pollution, as well as disputes over the effects of heavy metals from mining and industry, have forced may people to become increasingly involved in environmental protection and protest.
Activists and journalists who confront the authorities and vested commercial interests over pollution and product safety are often subject to revenge attacks and government harassment, however.
Reported by Xin Lin for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.