Tue, Nov 29, 2005 - Page 5 News List

Safety concerns mar Harbin government's `delight' over the resumption of water supply


China's government celebrated the return of running water to this major city with a television variety show featuring women dancing with water bottles and praise for communist officials, but residents were still waiting yesterday to be told that supplies were clean enough to drink.

Water began running on Sunday evening for the 3.8 million people of Harbin in the frigid northeast, ending a five-day shutdown caused by a chemical plant explosion that embarrassed Communist leaders.

"We won," said a headline in the newspaper Life News below a photo of the provincial governor drinking a glass of boiled tap water on Sunday in a Harbin family's apartment.

But officials warned that the water wasn't immediately safe to drink after lying in underground pipes for five days. They said radio and television bulletins would announce when the supply was clean enough first to bathe in and later to drink. The government didn't say when that was expected to happen.

"It's back, but I don't know what I can use it for yet," said Guan Hongya, a manager for a textile company.

"We can use it to flush the toilet, but otherwise it might be no good to use," Guan said.

The Nov. 13 chemical plant explosion in Jilin, a city upstream, was a political disaster for President Hu Jintao's (胡錦濤) government and cast a harsh light on the environmental costs of China's breakneck development.

Hu's government issued embarrassing apologies to the Chinese public and to Russia, where a border city downstream is bracing for the arrival of the 80km long benzene slick.

State media have accused officials of lying about and trying to conceal the spill following the chemical plant blast, which killed five people and forced 10,000 more to flee their homes.

But yesterday, coverage was effusively upbeat, with newspaper photos showing smiling children in Harbin running their taps and water surging through treatment plants.

State television in Heilongjiang Province broadcast a variety show celebrating the return of water. Young women in jade-green costumes danced with empty 40-liter water bottles on their shoulders. A comedian played with a giant squirt gun.

Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) has promised to investigate the disaster and punish officials responsible. But state media also have been portraying efforts to keep this major industrial city supplied with drinking water as a triumph of the communist system.

Yesterday, some residents were still lining up in sunny but sub-freezing weather to get drinking water from fire trucks and tankers sent by the state.

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