China Explosion Leaves Millions Without Water

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An explosion at a chemical factory in northeastern China has forced local officials to cut off water supplies to a city of 10 million people. Taps ran dry in Harbin on Tuesday with virtually no advance warning and no indication of how long the shutoff will persist. Panicked residents responded to conflicting government statements with a furious buying spree during which all potable liquid at the city's flagship Wal-Mart sold out in hours. By Tuesday afternoon, homes, hospitals and schools had no running water, and few options.

"We have used up all the water left in the pipes," said an administrator at the Harbin No. 1 Hospital who identified himself to TIME only as Mr. He.

"The hospital does not have emergency water storage, and we don't know what to do, but we hope the government will send water soon," he said by telephone.

Harbin, a Russian-built city best known for its international ice-sculpture festival, borders the Russian Far East in Heilongjiang province, and temperatures are already well below freezing.

Officials seemed ill-prepared for the event even though the chemical-plant explosion had occurred more than a week earlier, on Nov. 13, some 200 miles upstream on the Songhua River. On Monday, a statement from the Harbin government attributed the surprise cutoff to "water main maintenance and repair." One day later, on Tuesday, a second statement issued on the city's official Web site acknowledged that the explosion had "perhaps polluted the water" in the river.

"Water supply to the city will cease," the three-sentence announcement said, "and the exact time of resumption will be announced. It is hoped that the masses in the city, government organs and enterprise work units will understand."

The statement did not address the possibility that residents had been exposed to contaminated water during the previous week, or that residents in other cities along the Songhua might face danger.

An employee of an orphanage, the Harbin Child Welfare Institution, says a local mineral-water plant allowed him to fill several dozen vats with water shortly after the announcement was made. The children in his care should have enough water for several days. "They said we can go back and fill up again if necessary," he said. The city's Obstetrics Hospital says it still has enough water for women giving birth, but that doctors are washing their hands with dirty, used water.

The explosion upstream had occurred at the Jilin Petrochemical Company, which is owned by the state-run China National Petroleum Corporation. It has not been revealed what contaminants might have entered the Songhua River. According to Chinese media reports, the plant produced aniline, which is used to make dye, fungicide and shoe polish. The Illinois-based National Safety Council considers it an "extremely hazardous substance." In small doses it causes lethargy, while larger doses can cause coma.