Tuesday, 22 Sep 2020

Beirut blast destroys tonnes of Lebanon's food stocks

BEIRUT (BLOOMBERG) – The huge explosion in Lebanon’s capital of Beirut tore through major grain silos, stoking fears of shortages in a nation that imports nearly all its food and is already reeling from economic crisis.

Tuesday’s blast, which killed dozens of people and injured thousands, happened next to a grain store in the city’s port, most of which was wrecked.

Video footage appeared to show grain spilling from the silos, which have a capacity of 120,000 tons.

The government said the storage facility was mostly empty, but that what stocks were there are unusable.

Most other food at the port, which handles 60 per cent of Lebanon’s imports, was also ruined, according to Bob Jabra, a partner at local commodity trader Ibrahim Jabra & Sons.

The company lost 10 containers of rice, or 250 tons, Jabra said.

Beirut’s governor estimates the cost of the damage will amount to between $3 billion (S$4.1 billion) and $5 billion.

“The damage is massive at the port and it will take a very long time to fix and build,” Public Works Minister Michel Najjar told local television.

Lebanon’s second-largest city, Tripoli in the north, will serve as the alternative port, possibly backed up by Sidon and Tyre, Najjar said.

Lebanon has enough wheat to last around six weeks and shouldn’t face deep shortages, according to Ahmed Hatteet, the head of the country’s association of wheat importers.

“The amount of flour in the market and on its way to Lebanon covers the market’s needs for a long period and therefore there’s no flour or bread crisis,” said Raoul Nehme, the economy and trade minister.

Food importers were scheduled meet Nehme on Wednesday to discuss the situation.

Lebanon relies on privately-owned mills to ship wheat from Ukraine, Russia and other European countries.

The government used to buy wheat from local farmers at above-market prices but hasn’t done so in years.

The explosion adds to Lebanon’s woes.

The Arab country has been battered by the coronavirus pandemic and is suffering from its worst financial crisis in decades.

The government defaulted on around $30 billion of Eurobonds in March and has been trying to get a bailout from the International Monetary Fund.

Shortages of foreign exchange, fuel and food have caused prices to rocket.

Overall inflation stood at 90 per cent in June, while that for food was 247 per cent, according to the government’s statistics agency.

“If Beirut’s port is effectively being taken out of commission, it’s going to add to the already existing disruptions to the supply chain,” Khatija Haque, head of research for the Middle East and North Africa at Dubai’s Emirates NBD bank, said in an interview with Bloomberg Television.

“Given that so much of Lebanon’s needs are imported, it could eventually put further upward pressure on prices.”

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