Ukraine is restoring and expanding some of its long-decommissioned river ports on the Danube to facilitate grain exports as a result of Russia’s blockade of the Black Sea.
Before the war, Ukraine’s river ports on the Danube were rarely used, some of which were in complete disrepair. But after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its control over exit routes to the Black Sea, Kiev is reviving its old river ports to avoid the naval blockade and speed up exports of the country’s wheat.
“Take the example of the port of Reni River,” Alla Stoyanova, the 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 passage to Romania. “It has not been used at all lately. So now we are working on expansion, together with other river ports, to increase capacity. At present, more than 160 ships in the Black Sea are waiting to enter the Sulina Canal to enter, but that is not possible because the capacity of that channel is only 5-6 ships per day.”
At the beginning of the Russian invasion, the silos and ports in Odessa were full of more than 25 million tons of grain. Today, 5 million of these have been exported via alternative road, rail and river routes.
“In March we exported 200,000 tons,” said Stoyanova. “In April 1.6 million; in May 1m 743,000 tons; and in June more than 2.5m. But that capacity is still not enough, because normally we exported 5-6 million tons of grain per month with our six ports in the Odessa region.”
Before the war, about five or six ships left Odessa harbor with a total of 100,000 tons of grain, with a single ship carrying up to 50,000 tons.
“One truck can carry only 25 tons and a train car 60 tons,” says Stoyanova. “To load the equivalent of one grain carrier, we would need 2,000 trucks. All those long lines of trucks and trains you see at the border is because neighboring countries are logistically unable to handle so much grain from us.”
To the extent that Kiev plans to expand its river ports with at least two new silos and dedicated truck parking to speed up the loading of grain transporters, the fact remains that these are only emergency measures to maintain grain transports. Ukrainian officials are aware that opening the Black Sea Route is the only way to satisfy global hunger.
“The truth is that there is no alternative to seaports,” Stoyanova said. “We have to unblock them immediately. The world can find a way to get Russia to agree to this. Not only do we want Russia to promise something, but we also want it to agree [to unblock our seaports] within the decision of the UN General Assembly. If Russia agrees, they can’t step back [from the agreement]†
“Unfortunately, if we lose soldiers every day who bravely defend our country, there are other statistics too, like every 48 seconds a person dies of starvation in the world,” she adds.
The number of people suffering from hunger in the world has risen by 150 million since the Covid pandemic began, the UN says, warning that the food crisis caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is threatening the worst-hit countries in widespread famine to bring.
As Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, told reporters on Thursday that Moscow was ready to negotiate grains with Ukraine, a series of Russian missiles destroyed two harvesters carrying 35 tons of grain in the Odessa region, according to local authorities.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian farmers in occupied territories have 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 at discounted prices last month. “My grain was sold almost 20% cheaper than usual. But it’s better than nothing,” said a farmer, who asked for anonymity for fear of reprisals from local authorities.
“I didn’t have enough space to store grain, so selling was the only option,” the farmer added. The second farmer said he was approached by a Crimean farm that asked him to sign documents proving that the grain had been bought “legally”.
He said he sold his grain for about $100 a ton, which was “barely above” production costs.
On Tuesday, the Moscow-installed head of the southeastern region of Zaporizhzhya told Russia’s Tass news agency that Ukrainian farmers in occupied territories received about $200 per tonne of grain.
An extensive transport network also seems to have developed to send the grain from the Kherson region to ports in southern Crimea, usually the first stop for Ukrainian grain.
“We get a lot of requests for grain transport from Kherson to ports in Crimea,” says Anna, manager at a logistics company in the Rostov border area. “People are willing to pay us very good money to pick up the grain and take it to Crimea, a journey that is not always safe.”
Heavy fighting is raging in the region as Ukraine, spurred on by newly received Western weapons, plans to counterattack to reclaim territory.
Anna said her company sends three to five trucks every day to collect grain from Kherson and transport it to the Crimean ports of Sevastopol and Kerch.
On Thursday, NASA said Russian forces now occupy about 22% of Ukraine’s farmland, with Kiev accusing Russia of stealing more than 600,000 tons of grain from occupied Ukrainian territories to sell in international markets.
That same day, Ukraine summoned the Turkish ambassador and said Turkey had allowed a Russian-flagged ship carrying thousands of tons of stolen Ukrainian grain to leave the port of Karasu.
Turkish customs officials seized the ship on Tuesday at Ukraine’s request after Kiev said the cargo was illegally carrying 7,000 tons of grain from Russian-occupied Berdiansk, a port in southeastern Ukraine.
There is growing evidence that some of the Ukrainian grain that arrives in those ports is then shipped abroad, mainly to ports in Syria and Turkey.