Snowed Under On The Farm

The return of snow and ice to southwestern Yunnan province, leaving clean-up crews struggling to cope with more blackouts, disrupted transport and stranded travelers, highlights both the fragility of China’s material infrastructure and the remarkable depth of its human resources to respond to a civil emergency on such a scale.

Meanwhile, the snow alert has been lifted in seven of the 19 provinces which have suffered their severest winter in more than half a century. Symbolic of the improvement, power has been fully restored to the main rail line between Beijing and Guangzhou, Xinhua reports, after 20 days of interruptions.

The scale of the disaster has been immense. Li Luguo, vice minister of civil affairs, said on Friday that 354,000 homes had collapsed, and a further 1.4 million damaged. That, as we have noted here before, is probably an underestimate. Reconstruction will not be complete until June.

The damage to rural livelihoods is even more immense. “Crops in the disaster areas were ruined en masse and people face serious livelihood difficulties,” Prime Minister Wen Jiabao said last week.

Some 70 million farm animals have died in the bad weather. Two fifths of the rapeseed crop has been destroyed and a third of the land used for growing vegetables has suffered severely from the snow and icy, according to Zhang Yuxiang, chief economist of the Ministry of Agriculture.

That amounts to millions of hectares of farmland. The affected areas grow the bulk of China’s winter fruit and vegetables.

Under those plastic-sheeted greenhouses you see all over is where much of that produce is grown. The have collapsed by the thousand under the weight of snow. Cabbage, broccoli, and similar winter crops and oranges and other fruit have been particularly hard hit. Crops not crushed have been frozen beyond resuscitation.

Beijing has been trucking food into the worst affected areas, as best it can, to alleviate local food shortages and using administrative controls to stop prices rising. The long-term inflationary impact on already surging food prices remains a concern.

Keep a weather-eye, so to speak, on northern China. It grows most of the country’s grain. This year’s harvest, though the spring crop is yet to be planted, is forecast to be about the same as last year, the state grain agency says — absent natural disasters.

Last year’s grain harvest was below normal because of drought. At least the all this winter’s snow, once it melts, will help alleviate a repeat of that.

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