11/22/2005, 00.00
CHINA
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Sudden water shortage sparks alarm in Harbin

The local government announced that the water supply will be cut for four days. Songhua River is feared to be polluted because of an explosion at a chemical plant. China is facing serious water shortages, especially in the north.

Beijing (AsiaNews/SCMP) - Harbin, a city of three million residents in Heilongjiang province, will be without water for four days. The population was greatly alarmed after the official announcement, which did not specify the cause.

The water supply was suspended from 8pm, local time, today to "conduct an overall inspection and repair of the pipeline network". Bathhouses and car washing services have been ordered to stop using water.

The population is worried, fearing that the government is hiding the real reason. In a second statement, in fact, the government said the waters of Songhua River will be tested; this river is the source of water supply. The testing will verify whether the water was polluted after a blast at a petrol-chemical plant in Jilin – some 380km upstream – on 13 November. Within a few hours, shops in the city had sold all bottled water in stock, as well as other drinks and even milk.

Industrial development, pollution of rivers and acid rain have caused serious water shortage in China, to the extent that Wang Shucheng, Water Resources Minister, has spoken of the need to "fight for every drop of water or die". More than 400 out of 660 Chinese cities lack adequate water supply and 110 face "severe shortages". Tianjin city has less water available than Saudi Arabia.

Agriculture absorbs 65% of water resources, compared to 25% consumed by industry and 10% for home use. More than 50% of Chinese grain and 40% of cotton, cultivated using high water consumption, come from the three northern provinces of Henan, Hebei and Shandong. Sou Lisheng, vice Minister for Water Resources, said that half the water used for agriculture is wasted. The government has so far increased resources by drawing water from underground waterbeds. But according to forecasts, these reserves could be exhausted or no longer suffice within a few years, according to environmental expert Ma Jun. In Beijing, the waterbed has gone down by least 50 metres in a little more than 50 years.

The central government now wants to channel water from the water-rich south to the north through acquaducts. At a cost of 60 billion US dollars, the project aims to channel an annual billion tons of water north from the Yangtze River.

However, environmental concerns arising from this project are considerable and many experts feel it would be preferable to make consumption more effective and to provide recycling.

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