China's coal ban leaves some families out in the cold

Delays in building of gas pipelines mean people left shivering as temperatures plunge

A file photo of a migrant worker stepping out of his accommodation in an area next to a coal power plant in Beijing during a smog-free day. PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING • Millions of families in northern China have been forced to give up coal for their winter heating as part of Beijing's campaign to fight smog, but some are now left out in the cold - literally.

Since August, the Chinese government has poured tens of billions of yuan into a massive project to install equipment, build thousands of kilometres of pipes and subsidise the higher costs of gas. Beijing alone has closed its four major coal-fired power plants and replaced them with four gas-fired plants.

The goal is to have millions of people living in China's frigid north bid goodbye to coal in favour of cleaner alternatives from the beginning of this month, when temperatures start to plunge.

Beijing has been under increasing pressure to deal with chronic air pollution amid concerns about the damage it is causing to people's health. Smog gets worse during the colder months when homes crank up the heat that is overwhelmingly fired by coal, according to Reuters.

But delays in the construction of new pipelines to supply natural gas meant that some households have neither coal nor natural gas with which to cook, bathe and keep warm during the coldest months of the year.

One woman in Linfen, Shanxi province, who declined to be identified, said all of the boilers in her village had been dismantled, but work on new gas pipes appeared to be nowhere near completion, the South China Morning Post said.

The 30-year-old said the local Communist Party committee had warned residents against burning coal with the slogan: "If your home has smoke coming out, see you in the detention centre."

"They're still doing the digging work to lay the gas pipes," she said. "My baby has fallen ill because of the cold."

Many northern cities also face a severe supply shortage of natural gas as more companies and households switch to the cleaner fuel.

In Taishan, Shandong province, local supplier Taishan Gas Group said thousands of households had their gas cut off over the weekend because of insufficient supply.

On social media site Weibo, dozens of users from northern China said they had yet to be provided with the natural gas promised by the authorities.

"I can't bear the cold in my home, even with a thick coat on," a user in Yongqing county, Hebei province wrote on Sunday.

"We don't have any heating on such cold days," a user from Anyang, Henan, wrote on Sunday. "How will we get through the winter?"

In many houses, radiators powered by natural gas have replaced centuries-old systems in rural villages in northern China - burning coal to heat large beds where whole families gather during the winter.

Yet some locals of Shanxi province, home to 40 per cent of China's total coal reserves, told Sixth Tone news website they are not confident that new technology will improve their living conditions.

Villager Zhao Xiaoxiao doubts electricity will make homes warmer. "The structure of our houses is different from apartments in the city - they're not well-insulated," she says. Temperatures in her village drop as low as minus 20 deg C in winter.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 24, 2017, with the headline China's coal ban leaves some families out in the cold. Subscribe