China-Russia Border Poison
Image Credit: Uniphoto Press

China-Russia Border Poison


When 7000 barrels of toxic chemicals from two damaged chemical plant warehouses in Jilin Province were swept into the Wende River, a tributary of the major Songhua River, emergency services in China leapt into action over concerns that the drinking water of millions of Chinese could be contaminated.

The accident happened during massive flooding in the north-east of the country that has claimed dozens of lives so far. But it’s not just Chinese officials who will have been keeping an eye on the clean-up efforts—the Songhua is also a tributary of Russia’s Amur River, which provides drinking water to numerous cities in the Russian Far East.

Although estimates vary over the volume of chemicals released, and when precisely they’ll reach eastern Russia, the incident is bound to reawaken anxieties Russians feel about the ecological policies of its rapidly industrializing southern neighbour—and exacerbate broader worries about the movement of its citizens.

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Unlike with some previous spillages, the most recent discharge occurred sufficiently upstream that Chinese workers should be able to recover most of the containers before they reach the Amur. Nonetheless, authorities in Khabarovsk (the largest Russian city downstream of the latest chemical release) have announced preparations for a possible emergency water shutdown that includes storing enough supplies for the city’s hospitals and other vital facilities.

Such precautions seem only prudent in light of what happened in November 2005, when an explosion at a PetroChina chemical complex in Jilin spewed about 100 tonnes of toxic benzene into the Songhua. The poisonous discharge soon made its way into Russia, costing the Russian government and economy tens of millions of dollars. And, although the Chinese authorities made unprecedented efforts to cooperate with their Russian counterparts to minimize the spill’s impact, Khabarovsk’s 600,000 residents resorted to using bottled water and other liquids for drinking and cooking after the accident contaminated the Amur.

Since then, China and Russia have actually sought to work more harmoniously on ecological issues, with the two governments signing a protocol on bilateral environmental cooperation to protect their shared border rivers the following year. Other measures have included a January 2008 memorandum obliging China and Russia to inform each other in the event of ecological emergencies that could affect both countries.

Despite these measures, Chinese-Russian environmental cooperation lags far behind that of European countries as well as that of the United States and its North American neighbours. Yet even if more co-operation did exist, tensions would likely persist for one simple reason—the huge and steady flow of water and air pollution from China into Russia.

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