Thousands of people have been evacuated in southern China as the region is hit by unusually cold weather, with freezing sleet and ice closing down key highways, officials said.
Meteorologists are warning that the cold weather, which hit southern China on Jan. 1, is likely to persist for 10 more days, driving up grocery prices in some cities and cutting supplies in others.
China's ministry of civil affairs ordered relief operations for the 3.83 million people affected by the cold weather, which has brought roads to a standstill and made fresh foods hard to come by in urban areas.
"Relief efforts should prioritize people stranded on icy highways and railways," the ministry said in a statement Wednesday.
It called on relief workers to deliver supplies including food, water, blankets, clothes, and quilts to disaster-affected areas as soon as possible, to "ensure no one suffers from cold or hunger," the statement said.
One person died, while 58,000 residents of Jiangxi, Hunan, Chongqing, Sichuan, and Guizhou had to be evacuated, according to a statement on the ministry's website.
It said that more than 1,200 houses had collapsed, with a further 6,600 houses damaged in the the sleet and freezing weather.
A woman surnamed Shi who had just returned to Shenzhen from her hometown in the central province of Hunan said the freezing weather had caused widespread disruption in the region.
"It was snowing ... It has never got that cold in previous years," she said. "It was snowing on Jan. 1, Jan. 2, and Jan. 3."
An employee surnamed Xiong who answered the phone at a travel agency in Hunan's Shaoyang city—close to the birthplace of Mao Zedong, a popular tourist destination—said no one had signed up for tours to the city ahead of the Lunar New Year celebrations on Feb. 3.
"The expressways are all frozen, and there have been quite a lot of car accidents," she said. "So there aren't that many people taking tourists around."
"It has been snowing for the past few days."
A migrant worker in the eastern province of Zhejiang surnamed Jiang said her elderly parents in Guangxi were having trouble buying food.
"My mother called me to say that the weather is really cold over there," Jiang said.
"All the roads are iced up. Our home is in the city, but she said she dare not even go outside to buy vegetables for fear of falling down."
But she said conditions weren't as bad as in a similar cold snap two years ago.
"In 2008, our power was cut off and there were no vegetables to be bought on the streets," Jiang said.
"We had to buy candles, which were selling at five yuan apiece," she said.
Guizhou-based rights activist Zeng Ning said his parents had postponed their return home to Hunan in the face of the wintry conditions.
"We heard that things were pretty serious in the southern part of Hunan," Zeng said. "The snow and ice have hit that whole area ... The expressways are basically closed, so there is no way to make the trip."
"We heard that these conditions are likely to last for at least another week," he said.
Food prices soar
The freezing weather closed all four highways for two days in Ziyuan county, in the southern region of Guangxi, driving up food prices, official media reported.
Officials estimated that 142,400 hectares of crops had been spoiled by the unseasonable cold, while economic losses were estimated at around
1.35 billion yuan (U.S. $204 million).
Local authorities were opening the highway for just a few hours a day, to enable groceries to be delivered from the regional capital of Guilin, according to the official Xinhua news agency.
Meanwhile, officials in southwestern Guizhou province imposed a cap on the price of Chinese cabbages and radishes, two of the most common winter vegetables.
More than 100 primary schools in the province closed ahead of the official Lunar New Year holiday, citing safety concerns.
"We have told schools to skip the final test and begin the winter holidays in advance if the bad weather persists," the local government said on its website.
Central China's Hunan province and the mega-city of Chongqing in the southwest have also been hit by snow and sleet, with traffic at a standstill on major expressways.
Long-distance bus services were suspended in parts of Hunan, as the highways were littered with toppled vehicles and stranded passengers, Xinhua said.
And around 85,000 residents of Chongqing were left without water by a frozen main supply pipe in Youyang county, officials said.
Some residents were left to carry water for several kilometers from nearby wells, while farmers counted thousands of yuan of losses from crops blighted by the cold.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.