02/01/2008, 00.00
CHINA
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China on its knees, government unable to cope with snow emergency

Tens of millions of people in 160 cities and counties are without electricity and water. Chenzhou, a city with four million inhabitants, has only five days of rice supplies. Travellers are fighting to get onto the trains. Serious crop damage, and economic worries. Criticism raised against the government, and Hu says he has "lost sleep".

Beijing (AsiaNews/Agencies) - The state of emergency and chaos continue to worsen in China, which has been crushed under the snow.  As the roads remain blocked, electricity and food are in increasingly short supply.  Criticism continues to sharpen against the government, incapable of addressing the emergency, as the snow gives no reprieve. 

According to the state news agency Xinhua, more than 160 counties and cities (tens of millions of people) have no electricity or drinking water, while it is feared that the situation is much worse than shown by the official data.  The four million inhabitants of Chenzhou (Hunan) have been without electricity and water for more than a week, as power lines have been knocked down together with the trees.  The state television network says that the city has enough oil for only seven more days, and rice for no more than five. The cooking oil and vegetables have already run out.  Water is being rationed. 

In other areas of Hunan, six centimetres of ice has formed on the electricity lines, dragging them down with its sheer weight.  In the province of Guizhou, prices have quadrupled for oil and candles.

Coal shortages have already closed power plants that produce more than 4,000 megawatts, five times the production of the Three Gorges Dam.  The coal miners are working without breaks, and the trains carrying coal are given priority.  The production of hydroelectric power is also lower in the winter, because it is a dry season for many of the rivers.  Experts maintain that if the current situation lasts for another week, the lack of electricity will strike the entire national economy, in part because the needs of cities and homes will be considered first.  Today the Shanghai stock market lost 3.55% in early trading, with investors concerned about the economic consequences. 

Meanwhile, new snowstorms are pounding the already struggling regions of Hunan, Guizhou, and Jianxi. The bad weather is expected to continue for days.

The trains have begun running again, using their diesel engines in the areas without electricity.  But in Guangzhou, hundreds of thousands of travellers who have been waiting for days are fighting with each other to get on to the trains; police cordons have been placed on the nearby streets to assure a minimum of order.  The crush of travellers who have been waiting for days in the train and bus stations and at the airports is so great that Yan Jiangying, spokesman for the state food and drug administration, has warned against the risk of infectious diseases, especially intestinal illnesses. 

8.4 million hectares of crops have been damaged, while 874,000 pigs, 85,000 cows, and 14.35 million chickens have died. Xu Xihe, a spokesman for the commerce ministry, said on television yesterday that "vegetable prices have risen to a record".

The government appears to have no solid plan for addressing the emergency, and no one is making any predictions.  The mobilisation of tens of thousands of soldiers to bring aid has been helpful, but even the army lacks the necessary means and experience.  After prime minister Wen went to show " solidarity " at the train stations crowded with millions of migrants, yesterday president Hu Jintao was at the port of Qinghuangdao, a coal transportation hub, where he asked the workers to speed up as much as possible their work to send coal to the stricken areas.  Followed by state television cameras, he descended 400 metres into a coal mine in Shanxi, where he confided that he is losing sleep over the problem, and asked the miners to continue working even during the lunar new year holiday, to ensure coal supplies. 

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