SHANGHAI (Reuters) - Heavy snow and rain closed airports, highways and train lines across central and eastern China on Saturday, stranding tens of thousands of travelers and threatening to block food supplies.
Snowfall since mid-January has been “the heaviest in a decade”, affecting about 32.9 million people and causing an estimated 6.23 billion yuan ($865 million) of damage, the official Xinhua news agency said.
The snow has collapsed homes, caused power blackouts and destroyed crops, causing the deaths of dozens of people in weather-related accidents.
By disrupting food supplies, the weather could also fuel inflation, which hit an 11-year high of 4.8 percent last year, becoming a major economic and social problem for the government.
“Transportation of fresh farm products - including vegetables, fruits, livestock and poultry - faces an extraordinarily grave situation,” the State Council, China’s cabinet, said in a statement late on Friday.
It ordered authorities around the country to clear snow and ice from roads, exempt vehicles carrying farm produce from all traffic tolls, and ensure that gas stations gave “unlimited supplies” of petrol to those vehicles without raising prices.
Pricing, finance, commerce and quality authorities across China were instructed to exempt wholesale suppliers of fresh farm products from “as many charges as possible”.
About 40,000 passengers, many of them traveling home for the Lunar New Year Festival in early February, were stranded at stations along the railway line from Beijing to the southern city of Guangzhou on Saturday, Xinhua reported.
A total of 136 electric passenger trains were stalled in central China’s Hunan Province after snow damaged power lines. Diesel locomotives were being used to haul the electric trains out of the area as over 10,000 workers repaired the power lines.
At least five major airports, including those in Hunan’s capital of Changsha and one in Nanjing, capital of the eastern province of Jiangsu, were closed, state television said.
Highways around Nanjing were closed, as were 28 major roads in the southwestern province of Guizhou, where 27,000 travelers were stranded in bus stations, Xinhua reported.
In the eastern province of Anhui, 12,000 people were evacuated from dangerous locations because of the snow, it added.
The snowfall extended as far as China’s commercial centre of Shanghai, which saw its heaviest snow this decade on Saturday, causing city authorities to promise to intervene in food markets to keep stable the prices of goods such as grains and milk, the official Liberation Daily said.
The National Meteorological Centre said some areas of central and eastern China could see at least three more days of snow.
Reporting by Andrew Torchia and George Chen; Editing by Bill Tarrant