Snow and sleet has caused transportation problems throughout China [AFP]

Some of the worst winter weather seen in China in half a century is bringing chaos as the country gears up for the busiest travel period of the year.

 

Thick sheets of ice on the roads, freezing rain, sleet and record snow falls have killed dozens of people and shut roads, railways and airports as millions of Chinese prepare to visit relatives over the Chinese New Year holiday.

 

The harsh weather hitting central, eastern and southern China - areas used to milder winters - comes right before hundreds of millions of Chinese criss-cross the country in the world's largest annual migration of people.

 

An estimated two billion journeys are made by aircraft, trains, or cars during the two-week period.

 

Hundreds of thousands of travellers have already
been stranded by the bad weather [AFP]
On Sunday more than 150,000 people were stranded at the main railway station in Guangzhou, the capital of the booming southern province of Guangdong, after snow cut power to more than 136 trains, state media said.

 

The China Daily quoted a Guangzhou railway official as warning that the number of stranded passengers could hit 600,000 on Monday.

 

The slowdowns and stoppages are also likely to affect the movement of fresh food and other supplies around the country in a season when people in China have their biggest feasts.

 

The problems in Guangzhou are being repeated across large swathes of the country, with bad weather knocking out power and causing transportation delays.

 

Adding to the winter woes, China is facing an increasingly critical shortage of power with the country's generating plants not producing enough to meet demand.

 

The rising cost of coal - China's main energy source - has contributed to the crisis, with the transport slowdown threatening to drive prices even higher.

 

As a result many power companies have cut back production or closed power plants because government caps on electricity prices make production uneconomical.

 

With problems mounting Wen Jiabao, China's premier, warned that the weather was threatening lives and disrupting supplies of fresh food and energy ahead of celebrations marking the Chinese New Year holiday, which starts on February 7.

 

Speaking at the weekend Wen ordered officials to "urgently mobilise and work as one to wage this tough battle against disaster".

 

Provinces were ordered not to hoard their own coal and electricity, and officials said they would waive some transport charges for farm goods and monitor price hikes.

 

"Ensure that the people enjoy a joyful and auspicious Spring Festival," Wen said, referring to the upcoming celebrations.

 

But forecasters have warned of worse to come, saying the freezing weather will continue to hit provinces from east to west over the next week.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies