Panic buying of water in Liuzhou – a report from the ground
BBC News — 26 January 2012: River pollution sparks panic water buying in China city
Ken Fletcher is a British resident of Liuzhou in Guangxi Province where the panic buying is taking place. He sent this report to Danwei on January 27.
Yizhou is a small city in Hechi Prefecture in the north west of Guangxi. It is a sleepy sort of place which has yet to benefit from the development being carried out elsewhere in Guangxi. It is popular with the locals in summer as it lies in beautiful karst scenery similar to that of Yangshuo, but definitely much less touristy. There are many riverside fish restaurants, but most popular are the boat rides along the Longjiang River, some of which drop you off at “minority villages’ where you can partake in mock marriage ceremonies. I’ve been “married” there more than once. Never saw the girls again. The first village I visited was actually built as a movie set and no one really lived there.
Apart from that, nothing much really happens there, although in 2008, it made international newspapers when twenty people were killed in a chemical factory explosion.
Now it has hit the headlines again. On January 15 2012, alerted by the discovery of hundreds of dead fish in cages in a reservoir on the river, local authorities tested the water and discovered cadmium levels higher than the permitted safety level. Cadmium is a highly toxic heavy metal used in batteries, electroplating and in some industrial paints. Exposure can lead to kidney failure or cancer.
On Thursday January 19, the Hechi government issued a statement saying that the cadmium level at Luodong Hydropower Station at the river’s lower reaches was 0.0247 mlligrams per litre, three times higher than the official limit. Other reports also mentioned that arsenic levels were above permitted levels.
The authorities warned local residents not to drink the water and ordered dams to be opened to dilute the chemicals and hopefully bring levels back to normal. They began dosing the river with dissolved aluminium chloride in an attempt to neutralise the contaminants. At the same time, they started digging wells and arranging other alternative water sources. Investigations later revealed that the pollution was caused by a discharge by Guangxi Jinhe Mining Company, which operates upstream.
After flowing past Yizhou, the river meanders west before joining the much bigger Liujiang river which then flows south to the first major city in its path — Liuzhou, Guangxi’s industrial centre. The river loops through the city centre and is the venue for international water sports events etc. Thereafter, it flows south east, eventually joining the Pearl River. Several years ago, it was possible to take a ferry from Liuzhou to Guangzhou, but no longer.
The news from Yizhou also trickled down to Liuzhou over the Chinese New Year weekend and Monday’s New Years Day. I first read about an outbreak of panic buying of bottled water on Tuesday January 24 but I visited the city’s three largest supermarkets that day and saw no sign of anything unusual.
By Thursday, the news had reached the wire services and appeared on the BBC news site. By then, people really were panic buying and they still are.
This morning (Friday 27), I visited the two largest supermarkets in the city centre. Nancheng department store had completely run out of bottled water but in Lianhua Century Market, people were queuing up with stacks of boxes of bottled water piled up in their trolleys. My local corner shop, also operated by Lianhua, is completely out of water, too.
It is only today that the local media are beginning to report anything about this, perhaps out of their usual reluctance to print bad news, or perhaps because everyone is still on holiday. Liuzhou authorities are saying that pollutant levels in the Liujiang are well within safety limits and urging people to behave calmly. At the same time they say they are monitoring bottled water supplies and trying to ensure that there are no illegal price hikes as happened in March of last year when people idiotically began panic buying salt to supposedly prevent radiation poisoning in the wake of the Japanese nuclear accident.
There is a long tradition of swimming in the Liujiang. Every day, no matter how cold, elderly men and women can be seen slowly swim long distances up and down the river, trailing their clothes behind them in floating boxes. Today, when I walked by the riverside, there were none. And I don’t suppose the locals will be buying much fish this week. Me, I’m sticking to beer.
Update: At 23:36 on Friday January 27 2012, Liuzhou officials sent this message to all cell phones in the city.
Don’t worry about your tap water. It’s safe. If it becomes necessary to control the water supply, we will give 24 hours notice via the media.
Links and sources:
Liuzhou Laowai blog
BBC News: River pollution sparks panic water buying in China city
Reuters: China cadmium spill threatens drinking water for millions
Xinhua: River contamination causes panic buying of bottled water in Liuzhou, China’s Guangxi