Snowstorm death toll rises as Net critics rap 'slow response'
Will Clem in Shanghai
As the death toll from snowstorms in northern provinces continued to rise yesterday, internet users began to question the government's initially slow response to the disaster.
The heaviest snowfalls in more than half a century have caused at least 41 deaths and affected over 4.7 million people across seven provinces, state media reported.
News of the mounting human cost came as the Ministry of Finance announced it had set up a 20 million yuan (HK$22.7 million) relief fund to help the two worst-affected provinces - Hebei and Shanxi - cope with the disaster.
Images of stranded motorists and collapsed buildings in snowbound towns brought back memories of the massive snowstorm that brought chaos to southern provinces during the Lunar New Year last year.
The situation finally began to improve in most areas yesterday as a let-up in the weather allowed main highways to be gradually cleared, making life easier for the thousands of relief workers.
But the reverse was true in eastern Inner Mongolia and across the far northeast, where snowy conditions are expected to intensify over the next few days.
Shanxi has reported the most number of deaths - 24 people in nearly 500 traffic accidents.
Although Hebei has reported just seven fatalities, the province has borne the brunt of the storm, with more than 2.5 million people affected.
Nearly 1,500 homes have been completely destroyed in Hebei and a further 5,000 damaged. Officials in the province estimate the economic impact to exceed 1.3 billion yuan.
The Civil Affairs Ministry estimated national economic losses at 3.5 billion yuan.
The Public Security Bureau issued a renewed warning to police forces in all provinces to place extra emphasis on maintaining road safety.
The massive rescue operation includes more than 25,000 police officers working to clear roads. But some online observers, frustrated with the government's response, felt it was a case of too little too late.
'The government works too slowly,' one internet user wrote under a pseudonym on the Shanxi provincial government's news website.
'Why don't they get some machines in to clear the snow? Instead they just rely on a few street cleaners using shovels; it's going to take them aeons.'
Meteorological officials also sought to cut short speculation that artificial weather controls could have had an impact on the scale of the snowstorms.
On Wednesday, China Daily quoted an unidentified official in the Beijing Municipal Weather Modification Office as saying cloud seeding had been used on Tuesday.
The report prompted concerns that the disaster could have been at least partially man-made. However, a spokesman for the office denied cloud seeding had caused the snowfall in the capital.
'There has been no artificial manipulation of the weather this week,' he said.
'All the online reports saying there has been are only based on rumours.'
The spokesman admitted that the first snowfall in Beijing this year, on November 1, had been precipitated by artificial means, but 'the second snowfall was completely natural'.
Ironically, while the heavy snowstorms have brought temporary chaos to the region, the adverse weather is good news in the longer term for farmers in the wheat belt.
Cold weather during the winter reduces the number of insects in the spring, while the increase in groundwater is likely to help the region stave off the risk of drought next year.
The snowstorms have been responsible for huge financial losses
The estimated economic damage caused by the heavy snowing, in yuan, is: 3.5b