A Chinese city of 3.8 million people closed schools and was trucking in drinking water Wednesday after shutting down its water system following a chemical plant explosion that officials said polluted a nearby river with toxic benzene. The announcement of the shutdown in Harbin in China's northeast set off panicked buying this week of bottled water, milk and soft drinks that left supermarket shelves bare. The water system was shut down at midnight Tuesday and probably will stay out of service for four days, said an official of its Municipal Water Supply Group. He would give only his surname, Chen.
Officials said an explosion Nov. 13 at a chemical plant in the nearby city of Jilin left the Songhua River, Harbin's main source of drinking water, polluted with benzene.
"The provincial government is sending in bottled drinking water from other cities," Chen said. "It must be very inconvenient for the public _ taking showers or flushing toilets. But this is an emergency and it will only last a few days."
Schools cancelled classes through Nov. 30 "for fear that catering and sanitation cannot be secured," the official Xinhua News Agency said. There is no sign that benzene got into the city's water system, said an employee of the Harbin Environmental Bureau who would give only his surname, Wang. Benzene is a toxic, flammable liquid.
The explosion in Jilin killed five people and forced the evacuation of 10,000 others. It was blamed on human error in a tower that processed benzene.
The disaster highlighted the precarious state of China's water supplies.
The country's 1.3 billion people and the factories and farms of its booming economy compete for scarce supplies, while the government says all of China's major rivers are dangerously polluted.
Due to its vast population, China ranks among countries with the smallest water supplies per person. In Harbin, the government is using wells to supply hospitals and some residential areas, according to news reports. Retailers were warned not to overcharge for drinking water.
The shutdown affects the city of Harbin but not its suburbs, Chen said. The city has 3.8 million people, while the surrounding area has about 5 million more.
Photos in newspapers and on news Web sites showed people in packed supermarkets pushing carts overflowing with cases of bottled water and soft drinks.
Families prepared by filling buckets and bathtubs with water while the government said supplies were still safe, according to state media. A front-page photo in the China Daily newspaper showed a grade school classroom with buckets of water lined up behind the students. At the luxury Shangri-La Hotel in Harbin, guests were asked to limit showers and requests for laundry service, said its public relations manager, Zhang Yan, reports the AP. I.L.