Millions trapped at home by worst storms in 50 years

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 29 January, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 29 January, 2008, 12:00am

Hunan businesswoman Chen Qiongying , 53, has been shivering through the worst winter she can remember since a snowstorm hit the southern province 17 days ago.

The heaviest snow and sleet in 50 years has paralysed transport in the province. Icy runways have halted operations at the only international airport in Hunan - Changsha Huanghua International Airport. Widespread power cuts have delayed or forced cancellation of trains and the transport of food and energy has been jeopardised.

As the nation's major railway lines and roads go through the province, the effects of the crisis have spread quickly throughout the nation. Legions of passengers are stranded at bus, railway and airport hubs as the Lunar New Year, the most important festival for Chinese family gatherings, looms next week.

Ms Chen, who lives in Huarong county, has been trapped at home as almost all highways to neighbouring cities have been closed. She has had trouble getting water, heating and food. She said local people had been living without tap water for 17 days because pipes had cracked. In addition to bottled water on residents' shopping lists, coal for heating was another necessity as homes do not have indoor heating systems.

'This winter I've purchased more than 650kg of coal, which I have not bought for decades,' she said. 'It is choking to burn coal but we have no other choice. Many people have been admitted to hospital because of the cold weather.'

With frost-bitten vegetables and road traffic grinding to a halt, food prices have surged on top of the already serious inflation in the past year. Vegetables were being sold at double the normal price.

To her relief, electricity is back on after sporadic power cuts two weeks ago. 'Our county government has halted operation of all the factories to ensure power supply to residents,' she said.

According to the Hunan Civil Affairs Department, snowstorms since January 13 have killed at least seven people in the province and affected 25 million people in 14 cities. About 31,000 houses have collapsed and 167,000 residents been evacuated, while 1.26 million people are facing drinking water shortages and 7.63 billion yuan of economic losses have been recorded.

The local meteorological centre forecasts intensified snow, frost and rainfall in the next few days, with no let up in sight until February 3.