/ 29 January 2008

Wild China weather kills 25, besieges heartland

Chinese premier Wen Jiabao took a bullhorn in hand to encourage stranded passengers in the snow-bound city of Changsha, as unusually severe winter weather snarled transport throughout the south amidst the country’s worst power crisis.

Millions of migrant workers in the booming southern province of Guangdong were urged to abandon plans to go home to celebrate next week’s Lunar New Year holiday, or Spring Festival, because train tracks were blocked by snow.

Icy temperatures, snow and sleet blanketing much of central, eastern and southern China have crippled thousands of trucks and trains loaded with coal, food and passengers in the most severe winter weather seen in 50 years.

A bus plunged more than 40m from a snowy mountain road in the south-western province of Guizhou, killing 25, the Xinhua news agency said, the first known major accident caused by the freak weather.

Premier Wen Jiabao visited stricken Hunan province, north of Guangdong, first flying to neighbouring Hubei province because Hunan’s main airport was iced-in.

”When the electricity network is back, then the trains can run, so it will not be long before you can all go back home to celebrate the New Year,” state-owned television showed Wen shouting to crowds of passengers in the Changsha railway station, in a hasty trip to Hunan Province.

CCTV showed a woman crying as she listened.

The Politburo, the Communist Party’s top echelon of power, has put disaster relief at the top of the agenda after a meeting chaired by President Hu Jintao.

”The Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China urged local authorities to regard disaster relief as the ”most pressing task” at present and make ”all-out efforts” to ensure normal production and life,” Xinhua said.

The Ministry of Finance said on Tuesday in a statement that it would offer 98-million yuan ($13,6-million) to people suffering from the bad weather in Anhui, Jiangxi, Guangxi and Guizhou provinces.

The insurance regulator also ordered all insurance firms on Tuesday to award compensation as quickly as possible.

The snow across regions that usually have fairly temperate, snow-free winters was likely to stretch beyond Tuesday, the national forecaster said on its website.

Beijing remained cold but clear.

”At present, this snowy and icy weather still shows no signs of abating,” the civil aviation regulator added in a statement on its website.

China warned residents of Shanghai and neighbouring Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces, the country’s commercial engine room, to stay indoors if possible. In Shanghai, some food shelves in shops emptied as people stocked up.

Analysts said the brutal weather was a short-term blow to the economy and would stoke inflation that already has the government worried. It hit an 11-year high of 4,8% last year.

City cut off

Blocked roads and railways have also choked coal shipments, magnifying energy shortages that have caused power brownouts in 17 of China’s 31 provinces and province-status cities.

More than 800 000 residents in Chenzhou, in the southern and relatively warm part of Hunan, had had their power and water supplies cut off for five days, state television said.

The country’s worst power crisis has forced major industrial users such as metal smelters to shut down. Beijing is urging small coal mines closed in a safety drive to restart production if they have been ”rectified”.

Fuel stockpiles at many plants have plunged to levels that cover just a few days of generation, but analysts say the power problem is caused as much by policy as weather.

Adding to energy woes, blocked roads and railways have disrupted fuel shipments so diesel is running out in some areas.

They have also wrecked travel plans for the Lunar New Year holiday, a traditional time for family reunions. Xinhua said Guangdong authorities had urged millions of migrant workers to stay put.

”Authorities shall persuade migrant workers to postpone homebound journeys and strive to keep more than 65% of them in Guangdong during the festival,” said a circular issued by the Department of Labour.

More than half a million rail passengers were stranded in Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong, because of heavy snow blocking the track further north in Hunan.

”Police and armed police were deployed to keep order,” Xinhua said after reports of scuffles at the railway station on Monday.

On the main highway between Guangdong and Hunan, more than 20 000 trucks and other vehicles were stranded, Xinhua said.

At least 15 airports have been closed at various times and more than 6 500 flights from many others were delayed, cancelled or diverted, prompting some angry scenes with passengers, the General Administration of Civil Aviation of China said.

Newspapers said the disaster, which comes at a time when China is anxious to show the outside world its infrastructure is up to the task of hosting the Olympic Games in August, had also exposed bureaucratic confusion and obfuscation.

The Beijing News complained that some railway officials refused to give information on severed services.

”Blocked information is the big enemy of disaster relief,” the paper said. – Reuters