Two of the most pressing problems facing the Chinese government crossed paths on Thursday at a modest collection of buildings in the north-eastern city of Harbin, just round the corner from an old Russian Orthodox church.

The Harbin Veterinary Research Institute has been at the forefront of China’s efforts to contain the bird flu epidemic. Since the government announced a massive bird vaccination campaign earlier this month, the institute has been working overtime to produce as many as 20m doses a day of the vaccine its researchers invented.

However, vaccine manufacturing was put at risk this week when the local authorities announced they were suspending the city’s water supplies because of a chemical spill from a plant 200km away that was fast approaching the city. Not only is water used in producing the vaccine, but a plentiful supply of high-quality water is needed to keep the machinery clean.

The Harbin authorities have come under attack over the last two days for concealing the threat from the chemical spill and then providing misleading information – a response to health risks that has been seen elsewhere in China, most notably during the 2003 severe acute respiratory syndrome outbreak.

Yet the response in Harbin this week has also underlined another prominent Chinese trait, the capacity to deliver swift logistical relief in times of crisis, especially if it involves solving a delicate engineering problem.

The veterinary institute only discovered the water cuts on Tuesday, when they were formally announced. Within hours, it had applied to the city government for permission to dig a well and had secured the services of a local construction company.

Digging began at 3pm on Tuesday, in the compound of the institute’s downtown plant, and by Wednesday morning the well was completed. The well can supply 50 tonnes of water an hour, enough to meet the 400 tonnes needed daily to support vaccine production. By yesterday, normal production had resumed.

“It is not as difficult as it sounds,” said Zhang Xiaopeng, an official at the institute. “At this time of year, only the first couple of metres were frozen and the geological structure of Harbin makes it relatively easy to find water.”

The digging at the institute is part of a flurry of engineering activity around the town to locate alternative sources of water to keep important facilities, such as hospitals and power plants, going.

Although vaccine production is no longer under threat, analysts believe the initial response to the problem does not inspire confidence over the bird flu threat.

Andy Rothman, an economist at CLSA in Shanghai, says the danger is that officials treat a wider outbreak of bird flu in the same way they first responded to the chemical accident. “The accident and initial cover-up illustrate the problems Beijing faces in managing the bird flu problem,” he said.

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