An unexpected and unexplained stoppage in the water supply sparked rumors of a contaminated river that led to a run on bottled water in Harbin City supermarkets yesterday.
From noon today, the water supply will be cut off for four days, according to a statement issued by the municipal government of the capital of northeast China's Heilongjiang Province, the first time the supply will be cut off citywide for so long.
"To ensure the safety of water, the municipal government has decided to thoroughly check the city's water supply system and cut off supply temporarily," it said.
The lack of details led to rumors that the water of Songhua River, which supplies the city, was contaminated as a result of a chemical-plant blast on November 13.
People believed that the explosion in Jilin City of neighboring Jilin Province had caused a toxic leak into the river as it was only a few hundred meters away from its upper reaches.
But a Harbin municipal government official, who did not want to be named, dismissed the story as "just a rumor."
Harbin Water Supply Company refused to comment but municipal environment bureau sources said there was nothing abnormal with the quality of water in the river.
The local Jilin environment bureau also said it had found that water quality was barely affected after the blast.
The water supply to some parts of Harbin was already cut off at around 4 PM yesterday and anxious residents thronged supermarkets and shops to buy whatever they could lay their hands on.
Bottled mineral water, beverages, and even milk were sold out in big supermarkets such as WalMart and Carrefour.
"People started to pour in from 1 PM," said Zhang Ping, an employee at Century Mart, a chain supermarket. "By 3 or 4 PM, all the drinks were sold out," she said.
"I heard the news from a friend, so I hurried here," said Zhang Xiaoming, a salesperson who was carrying three boxes of bottled water in her cart. "But I don't think there are enough."
Prices of bottled water have risen sharply. For example, the wholesale price for Chunzhongchun, a local brand, has doubled from 0.5 yuan (6 US cents) to 1 yuan (12 US cents) a bottle.
The municipal government has ordered all bathhouses and car-wash facilities to stop operations during the four days.
It also ordered the city's administration of industry and commerce, the price bureau and police to strengthen surveillance over the market and maintain social order.
(China Daily November 22, 2005)