GUANGZHOU, China (Reuters) - Millions of Chinese shivered through power cuts and water shortages on Wednesday and millions more were stranded by snow and ice ahead of what is for many their only family reunion of the year.
Migrant workers in the booming southern province of Guangdong, standing under a grey sky and bitterly cold rain, have been urged to abandon plans to go home for the Lunar New Year, when families travel vast distances to reunite.
A sea of people crammed around the main railway station in the provincial capital, Guangzhou, huddling under umbrellas and waiting for a chance to get home. Trains have been paralysed by crippled power upline that has snarled the regional network.
For tens of millions of migrant workers, leaving their families to work in China’s fast-developing cities, the holiday, also known as the Spring Festival, is the only chance to see loved ones all year.
“I couldn’t buy a ticket before, but I hope with all the people returning their tickets, someone will sell me one now,” said Ding Ming, eager to return to his hometown in Chongqing, 30 hours away by train, to see his wife and 10-year-old child.
“If I don’t get one, or can’t go back, then it’s not ideal. That’s just the way it is.”
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao told passengers stuck at Changsha station in southern China on Tuesday that he was sorry. On Wednesday, he visited Guangzhou to offer similar comfort.
“You have suffered a lot from the inconvenience,” Wen told the crowd with a bullhorn as families stood around, some playing cards, some trying to entertain their children.
Ye Jun, who had camped out near the station for two days waiting for a train to Wuhan in central China, responded to the Premier’s visit with exhausted resignation.
“It hasn’t made much difference. We’re still sitting here like before,” Ye told Reuters.
At least 55 people have died, including 25 on Tuesday in a bus crash on an icy mountain road, Xinhua news agency reported. Several electricity workers were killed while repairing frozen and collapsed lines.
The snow and sleet blanketing much of central, eastern and southern China has also hobbled infrastructure already straining to keep up with feverish economic growth.
Highways and railways are clogged with stranded trucks and trains loaded with coal, food and passengers. Police said 6,400 vehicles were stuck on one stretch of highway in Hunan province, next to Guangdong.
The fierce winter weather, which many affected places call the worst in half a century or longer, was likely to last at least three more days, forecasters said.
“Dealing with this snow disaster is even more complicated than tackling the floods of 1998 or other natural disasters we have faced,” relief official Wang Zhenyao told state television. “We can mobilise millions of troops to fight floods, but at the moment we can’t even fly anyone in to offer relief.”
The transport snarl has choked coal shipments, magnifying energy shortages that have caused power brownouts in 17 of China’s 31 provinces and province-status cities.
In Guangdong, many power plants had just two days of coal left, the official Guangzhou Daily said, and authorities were shipping in emergency supplies on a fleet of 125 cargo ships.
More than 5 million people in the central and southern provinces of Hubei, Guizhou and Jiangxi have had water supplies reduced or cut off, and parts of Guizhou have endured two weeks without power, Xinhua said.
Vegetable, tea, grains and fruit crops have been destroyed.
Analysts said the brutal weather was a short-term blow to the economy and would stoke inflation that already has the government worried. It hit an 11-year high of 4.8 percent last year.
The National Development and Reform Commission, which steers pricing policy, said the price of cabbage and other staple vegetables has jumped by over 50 percent in snow-struck areas, and in some places rises have been much higher.
Additional reporting by Lu Jianxin in Shanghai and Guo Shipeng, Ben Blanchard and Chris Buckley in Beijing; Writing by Nick Macfie; Editing by Katie Nguyen