Cold winds, heavy snow and sleet, has chilled the Dragon over the past one month now and the Lunar New Year seems to bring little hope for millions of Chinese stranded in the East waiting for trains and airplanes to take them home for the holidays. Given the number of people affected, it could well be a winter tsunami for the people in many parts of the country. China suffered the worst winter in decades with raging snow storms and heavy snow freezing traffic, closing air ports and leaving many citizens stranded in the last week of the month.
The period of snow extended for a long time with icy winds blowing from 10 January onwards. The disaster was particularly galling for over 180 million Chinese workers eagerly waiting on the Western coast towns of Guangzhou to trek home for the Lunar New Year beginning 7 February. This period generally sees festivities for two weeks but this time it is apparent that winter storms have affected celebrations. Snow storms led to cancellation of over 3,250 flights as per the official Xinhua news agency, delayed 5,550 flights and caused 380 planes to be diverted.
Central, eastern and southern China was the most severely affected. The nine areas very seriously affected by snow included Hunan, Hubei, Guizhou, Anhui, Jiangxi, Gansu and Sichuan provinces, the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region and Chongqing City. For the large number of migrant workers in Guangzhou, the year's only break from work to visit their families was impacted as power lines connecting electric trains snapped and highways were closed. Combined with this was a rise in coal prices and shortage of gasoline and power which greatly impacted the common man. Premier Wen Jiabao visited passengers stranded at the railway station in the southern city of Guangzhou and exhorted local officials, "After 30 years of reform and opening up, we've accumulated a strong material foundation and as long as we're vigorously organized, we will be fully able to vanquish the current hardship."
The Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC) met to overcome the crisis on 29 January even as emergency was reaching the peak and directed local authorities to provide succour to the people. The Politburo statement indicated that, 'The top priority task at present is to ensure electricity supply and smooth communications and transport by every possible means." It urged local authorities to overcome all difficulties to increase coal output and guarantee supply of coal for power plants. A frequent reference to the Chinese saying, "When one place is in trouble, assistance comes from all squares", indicated focus of officials to garner support for the needy.
The PLA emergency response group also went into action after requests were received from the State Disaster Relief Commission. 300 lakh troops and 1.1 million reservists were reportedly activated. The first effort involved issue of quits and coats from military ware houses. The air force was also pressed into service with four Chinese air force Ilyushin II-76 military transport aircraft flying relief material to the affected areas. The PLA staff indicated that effort was diverted from military tasks to support the national relief effort within 50 minutes. 'PLA headquarters and relevant military districts have had tanks and armored cars on standby and they can be put into use to break ice on the roads at the request of local governments," said Senior Colonel Tian Yixiang of the emergency response group. As per Tian it is a constitutional obligation under the law for the PLA to take up relief work. Over 207,000 persons were reportedly deployed for emergency relief work with the PLA web site showing many photographs of Chinese soldiers breaking ice and clearing roads. The PLA Headquarters also directed the Military commands and districts to respond to the relief effort at the local level.
A report in the PLA Daily by Luo Bin and Wang Yongqing indicated that the Guangzhou Military Area Command had sent out, 'over 17,000 persons/times of servicemen, 356,000 persons/times of the militia and the reserve force and 4,500 vehicles/times to participate in snow disaster relief operations in some provinces (autonomous regions) in central and southern China. They had removed snow and ice on 1,700 km of roads, repaired 1,300 km of power lines and communication cables, rush-transported more than 1,000 tons of materials and evacuated over 70,000 stranded people," by 29 January.
Yet the magnitude of disaster with heavy snow covering streets and buildings across the country impacting 100 million people proved to be unequal to the scale of tragedy. While reports of loss of life have been limited, the human and material impact will take some time for recovery. While disasters of this magnitude during winters are not unknown across the World, in the case of China the mass of people affected makes the impact even more telling. China now needs to evolve much like India mass disaster management schemes which can give relief to hundreds and thousands of people at a time rather than tens for which the present schemes are drafted.