Hill dwellers left with little hope after cruel winter

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 16 February, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 16 February, 2008, 12:00am

Cut off from life's necessities by the worst blizzards in half a century, villagers in mountainous Lianzhou , Guangdong, have little to look forward to.

Hundreds of people living in three villages in Tanling, 230km northwest of Guangzhou, are still without electricity, clean water or communications three weeks after the area was cut off by snowstorms.

They have to rely on relief goods brought in by an armoured vehicle sent by the local government after all other attempts to reach them failed. Hard as their lives are, the future looks even more bleak.

Tens of thousands of fruit trees, the villagers' main source of income, were destroyed in the blizzards. They know they have nothing left to hang on to for the rest of the year and many have decided to leave their homes to eke out a living in big cities once the snow melts.

Squatting in a field where his vegetables are covered in thick snow and ice, Cheng Shenghua , a 40-year-old farmer from Shuiwei village, knows there is no chance of saving the crops.

'We have no choice. There is no way for us to stay. I will go to Dongguan after the Lunar New Year. Maybe I can get help from my fellow villagers living and working there and get a job,' he says.

Many of his neighbours face the same bleak future.

'Almost every household in Tanling lives off our fruit trees. Each family has more than 300 pear trees, which bring us more than 4,000 yuan a year,' says Cheng Riyao .

'But the heavy snowfall broke tens of thousands of pear trees this winter. Our most important source of income is now gone.'

The 50-year-old says it will take at least four years to replant the trees.

'If the government just folds its arms and does not come to help us, I will have to pack up and go to find work in cities. I'd probably have to go out for three or four years before I could come back. Maybe I will go to Guangzhou to try my luck. But I have no other working skills.'

Cheng Shenghua says more than 60 of the village's 130 residents - those aged 20 to 50 - would be forced to leave their homes.

But for now, the villagers have to focus on their immediate problems and survive a bitter winter without power and running water. The lack of electricity is the hardest challenge.

'Without a power supply, we can't operate the machine to grind grain and remove husks from the rice. Many people have to eat all the rice they stored up, or rely on the food the government sends us,' says 52-year-old Huang Rushan , from nearby Hengshui village.

Each villager has received about 5kg of rice from the authorities, which it is hoped will last them until it warms up.

But some families say their food is running out fast.

Ye Qingsi , 76, says: 'My family has five members. We only have enough food left for one day. I have been living here for more than six decades and have never come across such hardship. I'm so worried. I hope the government can come to our rescue soon.'

Some fear the heavy snow might break the roofs of their clay houses.

Xijiang villager Huang Zhanghua says he has started to spot cracks on the walls inside his house.

'Layers of ice get thicker and thicker on my roof each day, but I have no idea how I can remove them. Building a new house costs as much as 20,000 or 30,000 yuan. I have no money. I have no choice.'

Apart from Tanling and Xijiang, up to 300,000 people living in mountainous regions such as Gaoshan , Xingzi , Dalubian and Longping were affected by the snowstorms.

Last year Lianzhou was hit by the most serious drought for decades. Cheng Shenghua says the harvest was meagre and yields only a quarter of a normal year.

'It's so bad. Maybe Tanling is no longer a suitable place for us to live. Life is too hard here.'