01/30/2008, 00.00
CHINA
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Snow emergency resembles SARS crisis of 2003

It is an unprecedented crisis. Prime Minister Wen Jiabao brings symbolic support to the millions of stranded travellers, while the state is asking all to "stand together". But it is now feared that critical power plants will be closed because of a coal shortage. The snow is expected to continue for days.

Beijing (AsiaNews/Agencies) - Prime Minister Wen Jiabao went yesterday to the train station of Changsha (Hunan), one of the regions hit hardest by the snowfall, to visit the travellers who are camping out while they wait for train service to be restored. Using a megaphone, he apologized for the difficulties and promised quick restoration of service. "It will not be long before you can all go back home to celebrate the [lunar] new year". The bad weather has caused a crisis that can be compared, in recent terms, only to that of the SARS outbreak, when the entire country was rocked by fear of contagion. Today Wen went to the train station in Guangzhou, to comfort the thousands of stranded travellers; he called upon the local officials to guarantee them "food, drink, and a warm place to sleep", after they have been left to themselves for days, many without enough money to go to a hotel.  Railway officials are accused of showing indifference in recent days, which risks cancelling trips for hundreds of millions of people.

Meanwhile, in Beijing, the politburo of the communist party, headed by President Hu Jintao, has asked the local authorities and the entire country to "stand together" against the crisis and to "make all-out efforts to ensure normal production and life". The state television network has dedicated special programming to the crisis, describing it in tones similar to those used for the SARS emergency in 2003.

158,000 soldiers, 303,000 paramilitaries, and at least a million police officers have been sent to bring coal, food, and aid, and to clear the snow from the streets and rail lines. The army has distributed 419,000 blankets and 219,000 heavy coats to the tens of thousands of people stranded on the roads. According to official data, the snow has struck 77.86 million people and killed 53, 29 of whom died in bus accidents in Guizhou e Gansu. The coal shortage has led to a shortfall of 16 million kilowatts of power generation, and 89 power plants have extremely low coal supplies. It is expected that within one week many crucial power plants will run short of fuel. 6.86 million hectares of crops have been damaged, and 100 important electricity lines have been knocked out. 15 airports have been closed, and 6,500 flights have been cancelled, delayed, or rerouted, but last evening 8 important airports were reopened. The more than 800,000 inhabitants of Chenzhou have been without electricity and water for five days.

The energy shortage, which has struck 17 provinces, has caused the interruption of rail transport in Hunan, Hubei, and Anhui.  In the meantime, the snow has blocked dozens of major highways, stranding millions of bus passengers and forcing them to go to the already congested train stations.  Yesterday, at least 300,000 people were still stuck at the train station of Guangzhou, where it is expected that in the following days many of the migrant workers of the Pearl River Delta will arrive, in spite of the appeals for them to delay their departure.  Between January 23 and March 2, the railways expect to see 178.6 million passengers.  The state news agency Xinhua says that "railway authorities in Guangzhou, Shanghai, Hangzhou, Beijing, Jinan and Kunming have been forced to stop selling tickets and refund those already sold", but many passengers prefer to wait, "hoping for the resumption of service".

The weather service is forecasting that the snowfall will continue for a number of days.

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