China snow leaves millions in cold and dark

Millions of Chinese faced a humanitarian crisis on Friday, as petrol and food reserves dwindled and yet more bad weather was forecast for a country paralysed by record-breaking cold and snow.

More than 160 counties and cities in central China were suffering blackouts and water shortages, Xinhua news agency said, including Chenzhou, in Hunan province, a city of four million that has been without power and water for more than a week.

”Many trees are severed and power lines have collapsed. It’s like we have experienced an air raid or lost a battle,” a Chenzhou hotel worker told Reuters by telephone.

”It is a complete mess. We are hungry and cold.”

About 250 000 troops had been mobilised as of Friday to help with disaster relief, Xinhua said, as millions geared up for a cold, dark start to the Chinese New Year next week.

Stricken areas of south and central China are suffering the worst winter weather in half a century.

Miners are working overtime and coal given priority to speed through the rail network as Beijing fights the country’s most serious power crisis to date.

On Thursday, President Hu Jintao visited the key coal port of Qinghuangdao and asked dock workers to speed up loading of the fuel for shipping to the power stations of the stricken south.

State television said Chenzhou’s petrol reserves could only run for another seven days and its rice could feed residents for another five days.

Cooking oil and vegetables were also running out, with prices surging. Residents were relying on fire engines for rationed drinking water, it said.

In another Hunan county, the ice on power cables was 6cm thick, underscoring the strains on the electricity grid.

In hard-hit Guizhou province, prices of petrol and candles have quadrupled with the country already facing its highest inflation in more than a decade.

The Shanghai Composite Index plunged 3,55% in the morning session, with traders citing concern about damage to the economy from the winter weather.

”It is still snowing, no one knows when power and transport might resume,” said a Guizhou resident surnamed Li.

Hunan, Guizhou and Jiangxi were all facing fresh storms, the National Meteorological Centre said.

Trains creak to life

China’s railways were creaking back into action, but hundreds of thousands of travellers had to fight their way through scrums to get on board departing trains.

The key line between Beijing and Guangzhou had been restored, the government said, in part by using diesel locomotives to get through areas hit by power shortages.

But with transport lines still choked around the country, the State Food and Drug Administration said it was working to ensure shortages were averted and warned of possible health risks.

”We still have masses at train stations, bus stations, at airports and in crowded areas where perhaps some kinds of intestinal infectious disease could break out,” Yan Jiangying, the watchdog’s spokesperson, told a news conference.

”From those aspects, we must emphasise storing reserve supplies of medicines.”

In Guangzhou, travellers needed luck as well as a ticket.

”It’s not looking good. This is like if you prepare dinner for two and 200 people show up,” said Hu Lin, an environmental assessment official from Hubei province.

Other workers had given up on spending the holiday with their family, and planned a trip home later in the year instead.

”The central government actually cares a lot about us migrant workers, but there is just nothing anyone can do about this worsening weather,” said construction worker Lu Tingjie, who had given up hope of returning to Sichuan to see his children. – Reuters

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