China snow leaves millions in cold and dark

GUANGZHOU, China Fri Feb 1, 2008 7:10am EST

1 of 24. Train passengers wait outside a railway station in China's southern city of Guangzhou February 1, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Bobby Yip

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GUANGZHOU, China (Reuters) - 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 paralyzed 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 4 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."

Some 250,000 troops had been mobilized as of Friday to help with disaster relief and the army sent an armored personnel carrier to clear one ice-covered highway, Xinhua said, as millions geared up for a cold, dark Chinese New Year next week.

Stricken areas of south and central China are suffering the worst winter weather in half a century, with at least 60 people dying in weather-related accidents.

Premier Wen Jiabao again visited Hunan, with state television showing pictures of him telling provincial officials to do all they could to restore power and other services.

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

"Ice on power cables is so thick that it is impossible for the power cables to carry their weight and power pylons have collapsed," Zhu Hongren, an official with the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), told a news conference.

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.

RESIGNATION AND ANGER

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 Ministry of Communications said trucks carrying farm goods would be exempt from highway tolls.

Zhu said the disaster had taken an economic toll, but added that "underlying fundamentals" were still sound.

"If we take a long-term view, such a disaster will be a temporary one, and therefore its impact on the economy will be short-term," he said.

But Hunan, Guizhou and Jiangxi were all facing fresh storms, and Zhu said the extreme weather could last another 10 days.

Some took to Internet bulletin boards to complain the government had ignored them, though frustration has so far not boiled over into large-scale unrest.

"We are almost totally cut off from the outside world, with no water and no power," Sanllyzhao wrote from Bijie in Guizhou.

"Please wake up Guizhou government!"

Nearly 6 million passengers have also been stranded on trains or in railway stations in the past week.

On Friday, the railways were creaking back into action and the key link between Beijing and Guangzhou had been restored. Numbers waiting in Guangzhou's station were down by half from a peak of 800,000, but that still left hundreds of thousands of travelers scrambling to board delayed trains.

For millions of China's migrant workers, next week's Lunar New Year holiday is their only chance to see family all year.

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

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

(Additional reporting by Beijing bureau; Editing by Alex Richardson)

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