Amid scant reportage, weather extremes wreak havoc
Heavy snowfalls in China expose flaws in Beijing's coal mining and rail transport policies, while storms strand tourists in New Zealand
Scientists and activists pleading for serious attention to be paid to responsible energy policies have decried the lack of attention to climate change by politicians and media in the West. But the silence on this potentially devastating issue is arguably even more deafening in Asia.
Global warming is, obviously, a global phenomenon, and while North and South Americans fret about an increasing frequency and intensity of Atlantic hurricanes, the Pacific and Indian oceans are also caldrons of hugely destructive storms, and coastal Asian communities – some with very large and already poor populations – face a growing threat from rising sea levels.
Two Reuters stories this week illustrate the social, economic, and even political dangers posed by extreme weather events.
China has just experienced its worst blizzard this winter, which, Reuters reports, has exposed a flaw in Beijing’s drive to create remote coal-mining hubs as it tries to streamline heavy industries and clean up polluted air in populated regions: a lack of railroads to get the fuel to market.
Meanwhile thousands of kilometers to the south, hundreds of tourists were freed after being trapped in a remote New Zealand town for 48 hours when a strong storm linked to a tropical cyclone damaged roads.
Perfect storm: China blizzard
In China, heavy snowstorms snarled the world’s largest rail network this week, closing highways, freezing ports and cutting off critical supplies of thermal coal.
The bottlenecks added to a month-long coal price rally and prompted four top utilities to warn of potential heating and electricity shortages ahead of the upcoming Lunar New Year.
By Friday, rare heavy snow in southern and central regions had eased, but railways were still clogged. State railway operator China Railway Corporation has imposed more emergency measures to increase coal deliveries to southern power producers running low on stock.
Rail experts and executives at utilities warn that chaotic episodes like this may become more frequent over coming years until new freight lines are built.
“China’s railway capacity is seriously inadequate, even though it has invested lots of money each year to build new lines,” said Zhao Jian, a professor at Beijing Jiaotong University.
Adding further strain to the system, the government last year required thousands of factories to use rail to ship cargo rather than roads, the nation’s favorite mode of transportation.
Aside from rail capacity, the issue can also be traced back to central government policy that has closed small mines and reduced output in the south, limiting availability of regional spot supplies that could normally pick up the slack.
By creating mining hubs in more remote northern and western regions, the fuel has further to travel to get to the coal-fired power plants that produce most of China’s electricity.
A source at one of the country’s top utilities, Huaneng, reckons imports will play an even bigger role in supplementing supplies.
“The shifting of the coal hub from east to the west will add potential risks to transportation since we will see coal traveling a longer distance,” he said.
Over the past decade, China has plowed trillions of yuan into expanding its high-speed passenger rail network, but spending growth is starting to slow.
China Rail’s investment target this year is the lowest since 2013, and mostly on high-speed passenger tracks.
The somewhat neglected freight network cannot handle the extra capacity.
The nation’s first north-south special coal line – the Inner Mongolia-to-Jiangxi Railway designed to carry 200 million metric tons of cargo and stretching 2,000km – won’t be ready until at least 2019.
Existing freight tracks also don’t service the regions in dire need of fuel.
China’s four major tracks with capacity to carry 1.2 billion tons each year of freight run west from the coal hinterlands to east-coast ports, where fuel is shipped south for delivery inland by truck or barge along the Yangtze River.
With coal stranded at mines, Chinese authorities have rushed to shore up supplies of fuel.
In the second round of emergency measures, China Railway last week ordered almost 20 regional hubs from Hohot in Inner Mongolia to Kunming in Yunnan in the south to ramp up loadings.
Until February 10, some 46,000 cars of coal a day must be delivered to ensure supplies reach Hunan, Hubei, Shandong and Jiangxi and power plants in other regions that are running low of fuel, it said in a fax reviewed by Reuters.
That equates to about 3 million tons of coal, almost 60% of China’s average daily needs for its coal-fired power sector, according to Reuters calculations.
China Rail has already made coal a priority and restricted shipments of grain and fertilizer south.
Well-intentioned but flawed
Restrictions on mining are part of efforts to clear the pollution that blankets northern China during winters and move heavy industry away from populated urban areas.
The provinces pleading for help after a rare dump of snow were in the southern and central regions Jiangsu, Hunan and Sichuan.
Those provinces have cut coal output the most in percentage terms in recent years, while Inner Mongolia, Shanxi, Shaanxi and Xinjiang have ramped up supplies.
Those four top-producing regions accounted for 72% of the total coal output in 2017, compared with just over half in 2008, according to data from China’s coal-transportation association.
The expansion of coal output in these areas, outside China’s traditional industrial heartland, has had the desired effect of shifting polluting activities away from the most populous areas.
But analysts say that until the rail network fully connects those supply hubs with centers of demand, further congestion problems look likely to persist.
Stranded on South Island
Meanwhile in New Zealand, hundreds of tourists trapped in a remote town for 48 hours after a strong storm damaged roads were freed on Saturday after authorities cleared a highway.
About 600 tourists are now able to leave the remote town of Haast, 426km northwest of Dunedin on the west coast of the South Island, a world heritage area famous for rugged scenery, after the road was cleared.
The road was hit by landslips as wild weather from former Tropical Cyclone Fehi wreaked havoc across the west coast, uprooting trees, felling power lines, collapsing a bridge and blocking roads.
A further 117 motorists stranded at Fox Glacier were also able to move on Saturday after roads were repaired, West Coast Civil Defense officials told Reuters.
The storm flooded the southern city of Dunedin and the west-coast town of Buller, forcing authorities to declare a state of emergency and ask people not to travel by road.
Health authorities warned people to avoid contact with floodwaters that could be contaminated by sewage, Radio NZ said.