BEIJING – Wild winter weather across China left hundreds of thousands of people stranded on Monday and crippled energy and transport, stoking fears of rising deaths and economic damage blighting the biggest holiday of the year.
By late Sunday, 21 people had died in accidents due to the freezing weather, according to state media, while highways, railways and airports have been paralyzed, especially in the east.
Heavy snow and sleet have hit central, eastern and southern China, regions used to milder winters.
The snow struck as tens of millions of Chinese head home to celebrate the Lunar New Year, starting on February 7 this year, straining trains and planes even in normal times.
At the main rail station in Guangzhou in the relatively warm commercial far south, 170,000 people crammed together waiting for trains that cannot leave because of electric trains stranded downline, Xinhua news agency reported.
By the end of Monday, a backlog of 600,000 waiting for trains from the city was expected. Television showed green-uniformed anti-riot troops ready to keep order around the station.
The China Meteorological Administration said the cold snap showed no signs of lifting and issued a “red alert” warning of snow storms in some central and eastern areas, including around Shanghai, the nation’s commercial hub.
“Cut unnecessary outdoors activities,” urged the notice on the central forecast Web site (www.nmc.gov.cn).
Traffic at dozens of regional airports has been reduced to a snail’s pace or stopped completely. About half the country’s 31 provinces are enduring power brownouts as coal shipment delays add to strains.
Cargo ships docked at Shanghai’s Baoshan Port were delayed by snow that has hampered operations.
PRICE OF WILD WEATHER
Already the country is guessing the economic cost. China’s main stock index sagged as traders worried about the price tag of the wild weather on top of global economic woes.
“This year’s snow is really very extraordinary, and investors are now beginning to worry about the possible impact on the overall economy,” said an analyst at Shanghai Securities.
The Ministry of Civil Affairs, which handles disaster relief, estimated direct economic losses so far at 15.3 billion yuan ($2.1 billion), according to state television.
Premier Wen Jiabao said on Sunday the weather was threatening lives and disrupting supplies of fresh food, coal, oil and electricity ahead of the Lunar New Year holiday. He promised action to ensure public safety and power.
But residents in central and southwest China are already complaining of shortages of fresh foods and rocketing prices for rice, vegetables and eggs.
“A lot of transport has stopped, so vegetables and what have you can’t be brought in,” Xu Jinyun, a resident of Lujiang in snow-bound Anhui province in east China told Reuters.
The sight of swathes of China struggling with brownouts, food price hikes and business shutdowns has also led some to blame government tardiness and inefficiency as well as the cold.
“This crisis coming with the Spring Festival mass movement comes shrouded in bureaucratic details as well in nature’s storms and snow,” said a commentator in the Beijing News.
The Ministry of Railways has sent about 100 diesel locomotives to move the stranded electric trains and ordered 63 trains to bypass a paralyzed section of the key Beijing-Guangzhou line.
The government has not announced deaths due to freezing in homes. But homes south of the Yangtze River generally do not receive central heating and are not built for such icy weather.