Ukraine is in the process of restoring and expanding some of its river ports on the Danube, long disused, to facilitate the export of grain due to the Russian blockade of the Black Sea.
Before the war, Ukrainian river ports on the Danube were rarely used, some of them being completely dilapidated. But following the invasion of Ukraine by Russia and its control of the exit routes to the Black Sea, Kyiv is resurrecting its old river ports in order to avoid the maritime blockade and to accelerate the export of wheat from the country.
“Take the example of the Reni River port,” Alla Stoyanova, head of the Odessa region’s agricultural policy department, told the Guardian. The port was one of the most important in the Danube region during the Soviet Union and a gateway to Romania. “It hasn’t been used at all recently. We are therefore now working on expanding it, alongside other river ports, to increase capacity. As we speak, more than 160 ships are waiting in the Black Sea to enter the Sulina channel, but they cannot because the capacity of this channel is only 5-6 ships per day.
At the start of the Russian invasion, the silos and ports of Odessa were overflowing with more than 25 million tons of grain. Today, 5 million of them have been exported via alternative road, rail and river routes.
“In March, we managed to export 200,000 tons,” Stoyanova said. “In April 1.6m; in May 1m 743,000 tonnes; and in June more than 2.5 m. But this capacity is still not enough, because normally, with our six ports in the Odessa region, we exported 5-6 million tons of grain every month. »
Before the war, about five or six ships left the port of Odessa carrying a total of 100,000 tons of grain, with a single ship carrying up to 50,000 tons.
“A truck can only carry 25 tons and a wagon 60 tons,” explains Stoyanova. “To load the equivalent of a grain ship, we would need 2,000 trucks. All those long lines of trucks and trains that you can see at the border are because neighboring countries are not able to logistically handle so much grain from us. »
Insofar as Kyiv plans to expand its river ports with at least two new silos and special parking places for trucks in order to load grain transporters more quickly, the fact remains that these are only emergency measures to maintain grain shipments. Ukrainian officials are aware that opening the Black Sea route is the only way to alleviate world hunger.
“The truth is that there is no alternative to seaports,” Stoyanova said. “We must immediately unblock them. The world can find a way to get Russia to accept that. We don’t just want Russia to promise something, we want it to accept [to unblock our seaports] under the decision of the UN General Assembly. If Russia accepts this, it will not be able to back down [from the agreement].”
“If, unfortunately, we lose soldiers every day who bravely defend our country, there are also other statistics, like every 48 seconds, someone in the world dies of hunger,” she adds.
The number of hungry people around the world has risen by 150 million since the start of the Covid pandemic, according to the UN, warning that the food crisis triggered by the Russian invasion of Ukraine risks pushing countries most affected towards widespread starvation.
On Thursday, as Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters that Moscow was ready to negotiate with Ukraine over grain, a series of Russian missiles destroyed two harvesters containing 35 tonnes of grain in the region of Odessa, according to local authorities.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian farmers in the occupied territories had no choice but to sell their crops to the Russians.
Two Ukrainian farmers in the occupied Kherson region told the Guardian they sold their grain to Russian buyers last month at cut prices. “My grain was sold almost 20% cheaper than usual. But it’s better than nothing,” said a farmer, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisals from local authorities.
“I didn’t have enough space to store the grain, so selling was the only option,” the farmer added. The second farmer said he was approached by a Crimean-based agricultural company, who asked him to sign documents proving the grain had been purchased “legally”.
He said he was selling his grain for about $100 a tonne, which was “barely above” the cost of production.
On Tuesday, the head of the southeastern region of Zaporizhzhia, based in Moscow, told Russian news agency Tass that Ukrainian farmers in the occupied territories received around $200 a ton of grain.
A sprawling transportation network also appears to have emerged to send grain from the Kherson region to ports in southern Crimea, usually the first stop for Ukrainian grain.
“We get a lot of requests to transport grain from Kherson to Crimean ports,” said Anna, head of a logistics company based in the Rostov border region. “People are willing to pay us dearly to collect grain and transport it to Crimea, a trip that is not always safe. »
Heavy fighting continues in the region, as Ukraine, bolstered by newly received Western weapons, aims to mount a counterattack to reclaim territory.
Anna said her company sends three to five trucks every day to pick up grain in Kherson and ship it to the Crimean ports of Sevastopol and Kerch.
On Thursday, Nasa said Russian forces now occupied about 22% of Ukraine’s farmland, with Kyiv accusing Russia of stealing more than 600,000 tons of grain from occupied Ukrainian territories to sell on international markets.
On the same day, Ukraine summoned the Turkish ambassador, claiming that Turkey had allowed a Russian-flagged ship carrying what it claimed were thousands of tons of stolen Ukrainian grain to leave the port of Karasu.
Turkish customs officials seized the vessel at Ukraine’s request on Tuesday, after Kyiv said the cargo was illegally transporting 7,000 tons of grain from Berdyansk, a Russian-occupied port in southeastern Ukraine.
There is growing evidence that some of the Ukrainian grain that arrives at these ports is then shipped overseas, primarily to ports in Syria and Turkey.