Guangzhou, China (AFP) Feb 4, 2008
China's chief meteorologist admitted Monday the country was not prepared for the severe winter weather that has stranded millions of people struggling to get home for Lunar New Year.
The blizzards and icy temperatures that have lasted nearly three weeks have left millions stuck at airports, train stations and bus depots across south, central and eastern China.
"We didn't expect the snowy weather would last so long," China Meteorological Administration (CMA) chief Zheng Guoguang said, according to the Xinhua news agency.
"Because it was beyond our expectation we were not prepared," said Zheng, pointing to lack of equipment for removing ice in the south, which is experiencing its worst winter weather in decades.
The fact that the extreme weather occurred during the Lunar New Year holiday when tens of millions of migrant workers rush home to be with their families had only made things worse, he said.
Heavy fog descended Monday on southern China, complicating the task of helping stranded travellers.
The fog reduced visibility to less than 100 metres (yards) in some places, as meteorologists warned a new wave of snow, rain and sleet would likely hit in the next two days, Xinhua said.
At Guangzhou railway station in the south, where one woman was trampled to death in a stampede over the weekend, tens of thousands of people were desperately trying to get a train out before Thursday's Lunar New Year holiday.
"It's very dangerous here because there are too many people around," said Zhou Xiaoyang, a migrant worker standing outside the station with his wife and eight-month-old son.
"Even if you don't push people, they push you. But I have no choice, I have to go home to see my family," he said.
For many, Lunar New Year is their only chance to escape to their families after toiling in the factories, but the crippling weather has led to a massive backlog of travellers in places such as Guangzhou, capital of Guangdong province, which has China's biggest concentration of migrant workers.
In Guangzhou, about 92,000 people were still waiting late Sunday for a much-coveted train seat, according to official data reported by Xinhua.
Thousands of police were mobilised and deployed at the train station, some lined up several layers deep at barricades, to prevent any repeat of the weekend's deadly stampede.
"For your own and others' safety, all travellers should remain calm," said the message blared out incessantly via loudspeaker. "Don't be anxious, don't push, don't run. Follow the police officers' orders to queue up quickly."
President Hu Jintao called on the public to remain confident in the battle against the severe weather, according to Xinhua.
"We have to continue to put relief work as the top priority and carry it out in real earnest," Hu added.
And Premier Wen Jiabao said things were slowly returning to normal.
"At present, electricity supply is gradually resuming and transport services are basically back to normal, and the country's production and life are in normal conditions," Wen said.
A key expressway linking Beijing to the southern city of Zhuhai near Macau was fully reopened for traffic early Monday, Xinhua reported.
The drivers of 6,000 vehicles, some of whom had been stuck in the snow and ice for nine days, were rescued by soldiers as the army even deployed tanks to clear the ice in some areas, it said.
However, 17,000 vehicles remained stranded on nine different sections of expressway around China, the agency reported.
The weather has destroyed crops, hit industrial production, disrupted coal and food supplies and led to power blackouts, at an estimated cost of around 7.5 billion dollars, according to official figures.
At least 105 million out of the country's 1.3 billion people have been affected and scores have been killed, the government says.
Eleven electricians have been killed in the storms as they tried to restore power to regions hit by blackouts, Xinhua said Monday.
Central Hunan and neighbouring Hubei province have seen their worst winter weather in a century, a CMA official told AFP.
Limited economic impact from snow in China: economists
Three weeks of snow across most of China has taken a toll on the economy but the impact will dissipate over the full year, Xinhua news agency reported, citing Fan Gang, director of China's National Institute of Economic Research.
The snow is likely to stimulate investment in items such as upgrading the national power grid or improving the transportation network for coal, Fan was quoted as saying.
"There is no doubt that such a big economy will encounter various difficulties each year, but the Chinese economy is maintaining stable growth momentum," said Fan.
The extra investment spending is a factor Chinese policy makers need to take into account as they prepare economic measures for this year, the mass-circulation China Daily quoted economists saying Monday.
"The economic situation has become complicated with the new factors cropping up," said Wu Jinglian, an analyst at the State Council Development Research Centre, the central government's think tank, according to the paper.
China's economy, the world's fourth-largest, grew by a blistering 11.4 percent in 2007, the highest level in 13 years.
Investment accounted for 4.3 of those 11.4 percentage points, more than the 2.7 percent accounted for by net exports, according to the National Bureau of Statistics.
Economists at foreign financial institutions agreed that policy making could be complicated in the coming months by the unexpected disruption caused by the snow.
"The biggest damage comes from production disruption, due to power shortages and transportation blockages," said Dong Tao, an economist with Credit Suisse.
"We tentatively estimate about one to two percent of industrial production growth has been lost, though part of that could be made up for later," he wrote in a research note.
The slowdown in industrial output -- most prominently in energy-intensive industries such as non-ferrous metals -- could prompt the government to adopt a less tightening stance.
But at the same time, the government might end up in a dilemma, as the weather could push up prices, facing the government with the necessity not to loosen too much.
"Pressure for relaxing credit control and reversing of other tightening policies may then rise as a result," said Wang Tao, a Bank of America economist, in a research note.
"On the other hand, a likely significant rise in ... inflation in the first couple of months could be used to call for further monetary tightening and inflation control."
The World Bank Monday also predicted limited impact on the economy, as it lowered the 2008 growth forecast for China from 10.8 percent to 9.6 percent, not because of the snow, but because of the global slowdown.
"Natural disasters normally call for economic activity to repair the damage," David Dollar, the head of the bank's China office, told a briefing in Beijing.
Most of the impact of the storms -- including rising food prices and a decline in industrial output over January and February -- will turn out to be temporary, World Bank economists said.
There "could be some pick-up (later in the year) as investment takes place to solve the bottlenecks," said Louis Kuijs, a senior economist with the bank.
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