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Lack of coal supply a hard nut to crack
By Guan Xiaofeng (China Daily)
Updated: 2004-11-14 23:43

The authorities in cities across northern, northwestern and northeastern China plus Shandong and Henan provinces have been put to a hard test in securing winter heating for their residents as temperatures continue to plummet.

Although Beijingers will start to enjoy feeling the heat from Monday, the situation is not quite so optimistic in most cities, which are less well prepared for the situation.

Inadequate storage of coal for heating has become a common phenomenon across these areas of China, threatening winter heating supplies to 200 million urban residents across 14 provinces, municipalities and autonomous regions, whose main source of heating is coal.

In Harbin, the capital of Northeast China's Heilongjiang Province, storage of coal for heating supplies accounts for only 65 per cent of the total winter consumption needs, lower than the 70 per cent set by the city authorities, according to the Xinhua News Agency.

And in Northeast China's Jilin Province, the figure is just 40 per cent, while in previous years 80 per cent of the total coal consumption had been ready at the same time of the year. In Beijing, storage of coal is less than 50 per cent of the entire winter consumption needs.

Insufficient production and transport capacities were mainly responsible for coal shortages.

As the world's leading coal producer, China's output of coal was 1.285 billion tons in the first ten months of this year, a year-on-year growth of 16 per cent, but supply still falls short of demand due to China's booming economy.

Jia Yinsong, an official with the economic operation department of the National Development and Reform Commission, said on Saturday that China is still in urgent need of energy and transport, although supplies of both have grown rapidly.

State-owned coal mines have nearly reached their full capacity and township-owned coal mines have become the major focus of coal output, resulting in a massive waste of resources, Jia noted.

During the first nine months of this year, China's railways transported 1.613 billion tons of cargo, up 9 per cent over the same period. But the rail handling capacity only met one-third of the country's coal transport demand, said Jia.

To break the bottleneck caused by inadequate railway transport, some local governments have reserved "green passages" on highways to transport more coal and trucks carrying coal for heat supply will be freed from road and bridge maintenance charges.

The huge amount of arrears is another challenge that most Chinese heat supply enterprises have to face.

In the period of the planned economy, heating supplies were regarded as social welfare and most heating fees were paid by people's workplaces -- government agencies or State-owned enterprises, from whom the heating supply enterprises never worried about charging heating fees.

The heating pipe network in a block of flats, accordingly, takes the form of a serial connection, making it technically impossible to cut the supply to just one of the tenants in the block.

But in the market economy, most reformed State-owned enterprises no longer pay the heating fees for their employees as a form of welfare. Besides, the owners of flats that once belonged to an enterprise may now have no relation at all to the enterprise.

Consequently, heating supply enterprises have to charge the individual users instead of enterprises, sometimes with the help of property management companies

Since then, the huge amount of arrears has been a constant headache to many heating supply companies.

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