BEIJING China on Sunday ordered urgent steps to fight transport chaos and threats to energy and food supplies caused by brutal winter weather that forecasters said will continue as the nation heads into a major holiday.
The cold spell has lashed central, eastern and southern China in recent days, bringing heavy snow and sleet to provinces used to milder winters. Dozens of people have died, and many roads, railways and airports have been paralysed.
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said the chaotic weather was threatening lives and straining supplies of fresh food, coal, oil and electricity ahead of holidays marking the Lunar New Year, which starts on February 7.
"Urgently mobilise and work as one to wage this tough battle against disaster," Wen told officials, according to the transcript on the government Web site (www.gov.cn). "Ensure that the people enjoy a joyful and auspicious Spring Festival".
He and other senior officials announced steps aimed at softening the economic blow from the bad weather.
Provinces must share coal and electricity, officials would waive some transport charges for farm goods and they would keep a close eye on price hikes. Train services must also be able to cope with tens of millions of passengers heading home for the holidays, while more coal must be found for power plants.
But the government's chief weather forecaster, Yang Guiming, said the harsh weather was likely to continue, the China News Service reported.
"There's no room for optimism about this abnormal rain and snow weather across the country over the next week," he said.
And Wen warned that energy strains could also worsen as power plants' coal reserves run dangerously low.
"The tense situation for coal, electricity, oil and transport nationwide is continuing to develop and could intensify," Wen said. "The most difficult phase has not passed."
Ma Kai, the head of the National Development and Reform Commission, which steers industrial policy, ordered officials to "create conditions" for reopening small coal mines earlier shut down and "reorganised" for safety violations.
DEATHS, SHUTDOWNS AND CROWDS
The snow and ice have collapsed homes, snapped power lines and destroyed crops.
In mountainous Guizhou province in the southwest, three people had been killed, 877 buildings had collapsed and there had been widespread blackouts, Xinhua news agency reported.
In Hunan province in the south, accidents sparked by icy rains and cold had killed five people. In neighbouring Hubei province, six died on Saturday night in a collision between a truck and a long-distance bus that might have been at least partly due to icy roads.
Several regional airports were shut by the weather, including at Nanjing, capital of Jiangsu province. State television also showed highways crowded with trucks paralysed by the snow.
The national forecasting authority said the freezing weather would continue to pummel provinces from west to east over the next week, with heavy snows possible in Shanghai and neighbouring provinces -- powerhouses of business and manufacturing.
On Sunday, Chinese television news showed railway stations choked with tens of thousands of delayed passengers.
In Guangzhou in the far south, more than 100,000 people crammed the main railway station, many of them rural migrant workers eager to return home for the traditional Lunar New Year holiday.
Police closed roads around the station and pulled passengers from the dangerous crush of people inside, the Guangzhou Daily reported.
"Safety is always the top priority," Premier Wen said earlier.
The bad weather also threatens to stoke price rises that already had the government worried. Wen warned officials and businesses to keep prices in check as consumer demand rises for the Lunar New Year celebrations.
(Reporting by Chris Buckley; Editing by David Fogarty)