With official figures of 107 dead and direct economic losses of about US$15.4 billion, the worst snow storms in China in at least 50 years left the country reeling.
Coming around Chinese New Year, when transportation networks are traditionally strained by tens of millions of travelers returning home, the weather exposed weaknesses in the country’s infrastructure and left leaders scrambling to contain the damage.
Stranded travelers were the most visible sign of the chaos. Guangdong province, home to 30 million migrant workers, saw more than 12 million cancel their travel plans after snow snarled road and rail. At Guangzhou railway station, a woman was killed in a stampede as hundreds of thousands competed for seats on trains.
China’s power grid, already under strain from weak coal supplies, was tested to its limit. Not only did the cold weather cause a spike in energy demand, but the storms took down power lines, cutting electricity supplies to many areas. Chenzhou, a city of 4 million in Hunan province, was left without power for 10 days, as snow prevented transport from delivering supplies of coal, food and fuel.
Faced with massive disruptions, the government mobilized the military to help clear roads and aid in reconstruction efforts. Premier Wen Jiabao dashed around the country to pass on his apologies to delayed travelers, promising that transport and power services would soon return to order.
With the melting of the snows, the economic costs of the freakish weather have become clear. China’s insurance companies have already paid out more than US$140 million, mostly to the hardest-hit areas of Hunan, Hubei, Guizhou, Guangxi, and Anhui. Officials have indicated that signficant claims still remain – Hunan alone has reported claims of more than US$418 million.
Adding to woes in a country already suffering from food price inflation, the snow affected more than 24 million hectares of farmland. The full effects of this are not yet clear. However, there is little doubt that the wintry weather bringing supply chains to a standstill contributed to China’s consumer price index hitting 7.1% in January, an 11-year high.