Blast leaves Lebanon’s grain reserves at ‘a bit less than a month’

Hani Bohsali, head of the Importers’ Syndicate said, “We fear there will be a huge supply chain problem, unless there is an international consensus to save us.”
Wednesday 05/08/2020
An aerial view shows the massive damage at Beirut port’s grain silos and the area around it on August 5. (AFP)
An aerial view shows the massive damage at Beirut port’s grain silos and the area around it on August 5. (AFP)

BEIRUT – Lebanon’s main grain silo at Beirut port was destroyed in Tuesday’s blast, leaving the nation with less than a month’s reserves of the grain but still with enough flour to avoid a crisis, Economy Minister Raoul Nehme said on Wednesday.

A day after Tuesday’s devastating explosion, Nehme said that Lebanon needed reserves for at least three months to ensure food security and was looking at other storage areas.

The explosion was the most powerful to rip through Beirut, a city torn apart by civil war three decades ago.

The economy was already in meltdown before the blast, slowing grain imports as the nation struggled to find hard currency for purchases.

“There is no bread or flour crisis,” the minister said.

“We have enough inventory and boats on their way to cover the needs of Lebanon on the long term.”

He said grain reserves in Lebanon’s remaining silos stood at “a bit less than a month” but said the destroyed silos had only held 15,000 tonnes of the grain at the time, much less than capacity, which one official put at 120,000 tonnes.

Beirut’s port district was a mangled wreck, disabling the main entry point for imports to feed a nation of more than 6 million people.

Ahmed Tamer, the director of Tripoli port, Lebanon’s second biggest facility, said his port did not have grain storage but cargoes could be taken to warehouses 2km (about one mile) away.

“I want to reassure all Lebanese that we can receive the vessels,” he said.

Alongside Tripoli, the ports of Saida, Selaata and Jiyeh were also equipped to handle grain, the economy minister said.

But former Deputy Prime Minister Ghassan Hasbani said other ports did not have the same capabilities.

Hani Bohsali, head of the Importers’ Syndicate said “we fear there will be a huge supply chain problem, unless there is an international consensus to save us.”

Reserves of flour were sufficient to cover market needs for a month and a half and there were four ships carrying 28,000 tonnes of wheat heading to Lebanon, Ahmed Hattit, the head of the wheat importers union, told Al-Akhbar newspaper.

Lebanon is trying to immediately transfer four vessels carrying 25,000 tonnes of flour to the port in Tripoli, one official told LBCI news channel.

Damaged cars in front of billowing smoke behind the grain silos at the port of Beirut following the explosion that hit the heart of the Lebanese capital on August 4. (AFP)
Damaged cars in front of billowing smoke behind the grain silos at the port of Beirut following the explosion that hit the heart of the Lebanese capital on August 4. (AFP)

 The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation warned Tuesday that “we fear that we will soon have a problem with the availability of flour for the country.”

Maya Terro, founder of Food Blessed, a local charity that distributes food aid, now expects a huge additional demand. Beirut’s port, which was flattened by the explosions, is the main gateway for imports.

“Lebanon imports 80 percent of its food,” Terro said. “Immediately I thought: empty supermarket shelves, increased prices due to shortages.”

Inflation of basic food goods already soared by 109% between September and May, according to the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP).

Nearly half of Lebanese now live below the poverty line, according to official statistics.

Economic difficulties were a key driver of mass protests that began last year against a political system widely seen as corrupt and inept.

The economic crisis has been compounded by the loss of income caused by restrictions to stem the COVID-19 pandemic.

Two-thirds of Lebanese households have seen their income drop, according to a WFP survey in June, while two-fifths of those questioned had gone into debt to buy food or pay rent.

WFP, working with the government, was planning to boost aid to help 697,000 people this year, up from just under 140,000 in 2019, spokesperson Malak Jaafar said before the explosions.

Amel Association International said that, even before the blasts, it was already seeing a rise in numbers of Lebanese citizens seeking aid in its more than 20 centres, especially for its medical services.