BEIJING (Reuters) - Residue from a manganese plant has flooded a river in a city in the southwestern province of Sichuan, contaminating the main source of drinking water and sparking panic-buying of bottled water, state media said on Wednesday.
Residue from the Xichuan Minjiang Electrolytic Manganese Plant in Aba prefecture -- a heavily ethnic Tibetan part of Sichuan province next to the Tibet Autonomous Region -- was washed into the Fujiang river by heavy rain last Thursday.
The river is the source of drinking water for the city of Mianyang, according to a notice posted on the city government's official website.
"The government is asking the public not to panic and not to focus on panic buying of bottled water," the government said.
Officials in Mianyang sent fire engines to supply 375 tonnes of water to communities Tuesday and Wednesday, it said.
China has grappled with extensive air and water pollution over years of rapid economic growth.
Despite the plea for people not to panic, residents had "stormed supermarkets, stores and shopping malls for bottled water," state news agency Xinhua said.
"I was at a tea house with my friends when I suddenly heard the warning Tuesday afternoon, but when I rushed to the nearest store, I saw a long queue of water buyers, and there wasn't a bottle on the shelves," Xinhua cited a woman surnamed Zhou as saying.
Sales people with several major supermarkets and shopping malls, including Wal-Mart and Parkson, said they had ordered in more bottled water to cope with the demand, Xinhua said.
The Mianyang government warned of severe penalties for people who hoard bottled water and engage in price gouging.
(Reporting by Sui-Lee Wee; Editing by Robert Birsel)