China celebrates return of running water

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 Monday 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."

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

Hu's government issued embarrassing apologies to China's public and to Russia, where a border city downstream is bracing for the arrival of the 80-kilometer-long (50-mile-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 on Monday, 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, where Harbin is the capital, broadcast a variety show celebrating the return of water. Young women in jade-green costumes danced with empty 40-liter (10-gallon) water bottles on their shoulders. A comedian played with a giant squirt gun.

The audience included provincial Gov. Zhang Zuoji, local officials and paramilitary police who had helped to distribute water. Banners behind the stage showed the names of nearby cities that sent fleets of water trucks to Harbin during the crisis.

Premier Wen Jiabao 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.

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

There was no immediate announcement of when public schools, shut since last week, would reopen.

The pollutants were expected to reach Russian territory within days and Khabarovsk, a city of 580,000, within weeks.

A top Russian environmental official, Oleg Mitvol, told the Ekho Moskvy radio on Sunday that the government will fly 50 tons of activated carbon to treatment plants along the Amur River in a bid to absorb the toxins. The Songhua flows into the Heilong River, which crosses the border and becomes the Amur in Russia. Environmentalists have criticized China's response to the spill and questioned the decision to allow a facility handling such dangerous materials near a key water source. The plant is operated by a subsidiary of China's biggest oil company, state-owned China National Petroleum Corp., which has apologized for the disaster, reports the AP. I.L.

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