China plans US$1.2 billion to clean-up river along Russian border

China plans to spend 10 billion yuan (US$1.2 billion; Ђ 1 billion) cleaning up the heavily polluted Songhua River along the Russian border, where a massive benzene spill last year forced authorities to shut off drinking water to millions of people.

The money will fund more than 200 projects over the coming five years aimed at reducing industrial pollution, improving sewage treatment, and reviving the hardest-hit parts of the river, the State Bureau of Environmental Protection said on its Web site Wednesday.

The Songhua's watershed includes some of China's biggest industrial cities and its waters feed into other rivers that flow through the Russian Far East city of Khabarovsk.

Last year's Nov. 13 chemical spill forced the northeast China city of Harbin, a major industrial center, to shut off water supplies to 3.8 million people for five days, and strained relations with Russia.

Chemicals released into the river included benzene, nitrobenzene and aniline, a poisonous liquid used to make dyes, resins, rubber additives and agricultural products. All are thought to be potentially cancer-causing.

Chinese and Russian officials recently ruled out the possibility of a further round of pollution caused by the melting of river ice.

China's waterways have been devastated by decades of breakneck economic development, with 320 million rural residents lacking safe drinking water.

In the four months since the Songhua incident alone, the country has suffered another 73 major spills, the official Xinhua News Agency reported Thursday.

It cited bureau deputy director Pan Yue as saying that more stricter measures would be taken to monitor pollution and promising tougher punishment for officials responsible for pollution incidents, reports the AP.

I.L.