updated 2/27/2008 12:00:37 PM ET 2008-02-27T17:00:37

Pollution turned part of a major river system in central China red and foamy, forcing authorities to cut water supplies to as many as 200,000 people, the provincial government and a state news agency said Wednesday.

Some communities along tributaries of the Han River — a branch of the Yangtze — in Hubei province were using emergency water supplies, while at least 60,000 people were relying on bottled water and limited underground sources, Xinhua News Agency reported.

Residents in some towns were getting water from fire trucks, the Hubei provincial government said on its Web site.

Five schools were closed in Xingou township, while others could not provide food to students, the Xinhua report said without elaborating.

The pollution was discovered Sunday when water plant workers from Jianli County found that the Dongjing River, a tributary of the Han, had turned red and foamy, the Hubei Web site said.

Water plants along the river suspended intake and cut tap water to as many as 120,000 people, according to reports on the site. Xinhua said 200,000 people were without water.

Tests showed the polluted waters contained elevated levels of ammonia, nitrogen, and permanganate, a chemical used in metal cleaning, tanning and bleaching, Xinhua said. The pollution apparently flowed down from the Han River, the Hubei government said without elaborating on its source.

Water from nearby Lake Chang was being diverted to dilute the pollution.

Chronic pollution, chemical accidents
Most of China's canals, rivers and lakes are severely tainted by industrial, agricultural and household pollution. Chinese leaders say the country faces a critical water shortage, partly due to chronic pollution and chemical accidents.

In one of China's worst cases of river pollution, potentially cancer-causing chemicals, including benzene, spilled into the Songhua River in November 2005. The northeastern city of Harbin was forced to sever water supplies to 3.8 million people for five days. The accident also strained relations with Russia, into which the poisoned waters flowed.

A paper mill dumped waste water directly into the Han in September 2006, forcing authorities to cut water supplies for a week in some areas, the Xinhua and government reports said. They did not say how many people were affected.

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