Residents of Lanzhou rushed to buy mineral water after the city's water supply was contaminated.
An oil leak last Thursday caused an increase in the benzene levels in the drinking water of Lanzhou, a city in northwestern China. Since benzene is a toxic and carcinogenic liquid chemical, the city’s residents rushed to local supermarkets to stock up on bottled water, before city officials had a chance to deal with the problem. But many residents feel the authorities failed to warn them of the serious health risks they faced.
Veolia, a French company that co-manages water treatment in Lanzhou along with a Chinese company, detected unusually elevated levels of benzene in the local water at around 5 pm on April 10. Further measurement revealed 118 to 200 micrograms of benzene per litre, whereas the national threshold for safe drinking water is only 10 micrograms.
And yet, the public was only alerted to the hazard at noon the next day when Xinhua, an official press agency, published a statement regarding the spike in benzene levels. The government of Lanzhou issued a public warning around 5 pm on Friday afternoon. It remains unclear whether Veolia or the local government is responsible for the delay in warning residents. An investigation was launched to determine whether Veolia was in any way responsible.
Lanzhou’s stores were ransacked for their bottled water. Long queues formed in front of the stores, as can be seen on photos shared on social media. Likewise, an amateur report of an American English teacher in Lanzhou shows the public’s frenzied reaction.
On Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter, one user took it upon himself to perform electrolysis of Lanzhou’s tap water and mineral water. Electrolysis is a process that decomposes and reveals the solids dissolved in water. The results are worrying.
The authorities’ delay in alerting residents has caused a great deal of irritation, and Lanzhou residents have taken to Weibo to express their anger, attacking both Veolia and the local government. Their anger is exacerbated by the fact that a month ago, residents from certain neighbourhoods had complained that their tap water had an unpleasant taste. Moreover, Lanzhou is one of China’s most polluted cities.
"Veolia, apologise and get out of here! Let’s remember that this is not the first time our water has been polluted. Yet there are never any explanations or persons held accountable. We are lied to constantly, and there’s nothing we can do about it! We drank this water at work, children drank it at school, and then only in the evening do we hear that we shouldn’t be drinking tap water? Abroad, such a company would already be out of business, if only because of the fines!”
“These are the demands that every Lanzhou resident should make: 1. Veolia should be kicked out of the water market in Lanzhou; 2. Those responsible for the contamination should be punished; 3. Public officials in charge of water and the environment should be fired; 4. Lanzhou residents should receive compensation, notably by providing water free of charge for the coming years. We’ve been speaking about polluted water since March, but the government accused those who shared this information of spreading rumours. What happened in March needs to be investigated!”