02/05/2008, 00.00
CHINA

Lunar New Year to begin cold, dark and without water

Millions of Chinese will have to wait to see their power and water supplies restored. Diesel generators arrive but only in big cities. For experts the ongoing crisis shows the state’s inefficiency, lack of ideas and equipment shortage.

Beijing (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Lunar New Year without power, heating and water for millions of Chinese in thousands of towns and villages hit by the exceptional snowstorms in the last few weeks. Power supplies have been restored in 131 of the 170 counties affected by the crisis. By the New Year (which on Wednesday night) every county but only 80 percent of villages will have power, said Gu Junyuan, chief engineer of the State Electricity Regulatory Commission.

“We did not anticipate the disasters, we did not have an emergency programme at hand, and we did not have the necessary equipment in affected regions,” acknowledged today Zheng Guoguang, head of the China Meteorological Administration, quickly adding that Premier Wen Jiabao “has recently ordered the departments concerned to begin working out an emergency prevention programme.”

New Year celebrations are for more than 100 million migrants the only time they can travel home to visit their families. But this year it will be tough going.

Although trains and planes resumed service in most places, in Guangzhou about 80,000 travellers are still stranded at the railway station down from 800,000 just last week when a Hubei migrant worker, Li Hongxia, was crushed to death as crowds rushed to enter the train station.

In order to deal with the huge crowds and to prevent protests, the authorities have beefed up security at Guangzhou railway station, with 15,000 policemen and 1,500 soldiers assigned to the transportation hub.

For those staying home, millions have been without power and water for more than a week.

Among the technical staff called in 11 electricians have been killed so far trying to reconnect electricity lines or break ice encasing poles and cables.

“The situation has been improving with all the outside assistance, but fixing supplies to smaller towns and villages will take a long time,” said engineer Zhang Xuejiang. “Once a tower is down, it takes a lot of work to bring in a new one, especially with roads like they are.”

After an interval lasting days, diesel generators were finally brought in but they are barely enough for the major cities.

In Tanling, a township in Lianzhou, power has been restored, but more than 3,800 people have been stranded in remote villages on the slopes of Dadong Mountain since January 24. Some villagers had to walk for ten hours for food. At the other end, tens of soldiers have tried to remove the snow and ice but did not succeed in opening many roads.

And with phone lines down or overcharged it is hard to have news from relatives who are travelling. Zhang Dehua knows about it. He has been waiting for his son at the railway station in Kaili, a city with a population of half a million that just got its power back after more than week. He called him a couple of days ago but hadn't heard from him since.

“I was hoping he would be on that train but I don't think he was,” he said forlornly. “I will just have to wait for the next one and maybe the next one.”

Although it has been the worst winter on record for more than a century, experts note that China’s much vaunted efficiency has shown its limits. As the disaster unfolded over several days, no one in authority seemed to know what to do; even the army was sent in unprepared.

It took several days before major highways were re-opened, rescuing tens of thousands of travellers stranded in their cars.

It also took days before diesel generators were shipped to the cities where millions of people were without power and water.

More incredible is how long it took to re-open the Beijing-Guangzhou railway line, out of order for days for lack of power; with millions of people left to themselves, huddled in railway stations.

The flaws of the power grid are for all to see and be concerned about.

What is more for many there is something definitely wrong when the authorities state that the situation is getting back to normal whilst millions of people are still isolated without power or food.

In Chenzhou for example the 4.6 million residents have been without power and water for 11 consecutive days, but Hunan party chief Zhang Chunxian and governor Zhou Qiang declared that the city’s fight against bad weather had achieved a "decisive victory." Likewise Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said he was confident the country could clinch "final victory" against the cold winter.

But that is of little comfort in 12 of China’s 31 provinces where electricity is still rationed; the more so in China's worst-affected areas, Hunan, Jiangxi and Guizhou provinces, where only half of their normal power capacity is available.

The National Development and Reform Commission has acknowledged that coal stockpiles for power stations are still low. For this reason mines have been ordered to work through the New Year’s holidays.

China uses coal to generate about 78 percent of its electricity.

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