In a highly under-reported story from China, a deadly 80km long toxic slick yesterday reached the outskirts of Harbin, a city of 9 million people in the country’s north-east, after making its way down the Songhua river,
forcing thousands of residents to flee. The toxic chemicals were leaked
into the river after a series of explosions 10 days ago at a benzene
factory 200 km upriver. The government has belatedly admitted that
water supplies in Harbin could be compromised by the spill that
released more than 100 times the safe level of benzene into the city’s
main source of water, reports The Guardian, forcing millions of residents to prepare frantically for four days without water supplies.

of lorries arriving in Harbin on Wednesday helped replenish supermarket
shelves with bottled water in the north-eastern Chinese city, reports
the Financial Times,
but they did little to abate the unease sweeping through the town in
the wake of the accident. Long queues for tickets at the Harbin railway
station were testament to the mounting public distrust, spiced also
with rumours about an impending earthquake. The contaminated waters
could also reach the Russian border and the connected Amur river early
next week, says The Guardian, although they will be increasingly diluted by then.

This episode has brought together three of China’s weak spots in a way that will preoccupy Beijing, says FT.
The country’s rapid dash into manufacturing over the last two decades
has made environmental pollution a constant risk, while a growing group
of experts has begun to warn that China’s big cities could soon face
water shortages. Add to this mixture the latent post-Sars mistrust of
official pronouncements about public health risks, and the situation in
Harbin has explosive potential.