To say heavy snowfall has almost paralyzed North (and parts of Central) China is to state the obvious. Vehicles on many highways and expressways in north, northeastern and northwestern China have either come to a standstill or are moving at a snail's pace. In even cities such as Beijing, which has received its heaviest snowfall in 54 years, venturing out has become treacherous business whether one is walking on pavements or inching forward cautiously in a car or a bus. So one can imagine what people are going through in cities and towns and villages not used to or prepared for snow at all.
Tens of thousands of people are stranded on the highways and airports and railway stations across north and northwestern China. The blocking of highways means thousands of tons of essentials and perishables like vegetables and fruits cannot reach their destinations, making life more difficult for the people, especially the poor.
Even before yesterday morning's snowfall, more than 10,000 vehicles and 30,000 people had been stranded in Shanxi province alone. Shanxi experienced its heaviest snowfall since 1951, and neighboring Hebei since 1987. A majority of highways in Hebei have been closed, blocking tens of thousands of vehicles and passengers just on the Beijing-Zhangjiakou Expressway.
The heavy snow has forced authorities to close Shijiazhuang, Taiyuan, Xi'an and Zhengzhou airports for safety reasons. Airports in cities such as Beijing, Urumqi, Yinchuan, Xi'ning and Hohhot have been compelled to cancel or defer (indefinitely) hundreds of flights, leaving thousands of passengers stranded.
This winter's snow has already claimed three lives. Three children died and 28 were injured when the roof of a primary school canteen in Handan, Hebei, collapsed late on Wednesday, according to Xinhua.
All these bring back cold, bitter memories of January-February last year when millions of people returning home to celebrate Spring Festival were caught in one of the worst sleet and snowstorm the country has seen, which didn't spare even the eastern, central and southern parts of the country. Power cuts, disruptions in water supply and lack of essential commodities in large parts of the country worsened the condition of the people. It was only because of the backbreaking efforts of workers, soldiers, committed officials and ordinary people that the death toll was so low. Truly, the country rose as one, as it had done after the Sichuan earthquake in May last year.
We were taken by surprise then, and blamed the weather gods for the plight of those caught in the web of the changing climate. But we promised to learn a lesson - better adapt to climate change - and be prepared for any eventuality.
But have we? Can we defend ourselves by saying November is too early to take precautionary steps against heavy snow?
But this is not the time to point accusing fingers. Heavy snowfall had indeed been forecast for this week. And last winter's experience should have made us realize what heavy snow means.
We have accepted that global warming is a reality and poses a threat to China and the rest of the world. We have resolved to fight climate change, as well as adapt to it. And last year's snowstorms steeled that resolve.
Adapting to climate change, however, doesn't mean confining our actions to certain areas like building dams to prevent floods and provide irrigation during droughts. It doesn't mean only switching on the central heating system cities such as Beijing in case winter sets in earlier than expected.
Adapting also means using every possible administrative and communications channel to help the people in many different ways, and warn them of the dangers lurking at the corners. Since heavy snow had been forecast, we could have at least warned people against hitting the highways unless it was absolutely necessary. We could have used the press and public notification networks, such as TV, the Internet and mobile phone services for the purpose. They could have been used to warn air passengers, too, about the possible cancellation or postponement of their flights. We could have ensured that remoter areas in North China had had enough supply of food and other essentials to last the cold, dark days.
We ordinary people can come with only ordinary suggestions. It's for the government officials to think and plan about the more intricate and complicated issue. And that is not a tough ask, given the advancement we have made in technology and communications.
(China Daily 11/13/2009 page8)