Bottlenecks on alternative routes to export Ukrainian grain
The Russian invasion forced Ukraine to reroute its grain exports, with its six main Black Sea ports remaining under blockade. The standoff has left millions of people at heightened risk of starvation. A deal is being discussed to allow exports to resume, but reopening ports could take months. The BBC’s Nick Thorpe saw the bottlenecks in Hungary and Romania.
“You have to understand it like a supply chain, and there are so many weak links,” says Capt Botond Szalma. In his office in Budapest, a map of the Black Sea, the Danube and the entire eastern flank of Europe, from Poland to Turkey, is spread out on the table.
He is a third-generation ship’s captain; his grandfather and his father both transported grain on the Danube. “We are trying to make up for 30 years of disastrous neglect of rail infrastructure across the region, including Hungary,” says Capt Szalma, who is also executive vice-president of the Federation of National Associations of Ship Brokers and Agents ( Fonasba).
These problems, from lack of storage to inadequate transport, are now being felt as the Russian blockade continues.
Ukraine is one of the largest grain producers in the world. Since Russia invaded the country in February, Ukraine has had to find new ways to export the remaining 20 million tonnes of wheat from the 2021 crop and the expected 60 million tonnes from this year’s harvest.
“We are trying to make up for 30 years of disastrous neglect of rail infrastructure,” says Botond Szalma
There are 12 level crossings for freight trains between Ukraine and its five western neighbors – Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Moldova. The first logistical nightmare is moving wagons or their loads from broad gauge tracks – 1,524 mm wide, used in the former Soviet Union – to narrower European tracks – 1,432 mm wide.
Dilapidated tracks and a shortage of wagons, cranes, conveyor belts and trained personnel paint the picture.
The resulting numerous runoffs are now adding up to form a stream, but experts say it will only be enough to export at best a third of Ukrainian food to the world, which has threatened to plunge millions of people into food insecurity.
A cloud of corn dust envelops wagons, workers and a lone sunflower near the track in a fine film of white powder at Eperjeske, near Zahony on the Hungarian-Ukrainian border. A 30-car unit train from Ukraine is moving forward. Each wagon contains 70 tonnes of Ukrainian corn, destined for farmers in Italy to feed their cows.
After quality control, the wagons drop their loads one by one into a cavity under the track. It is then picked up by conveyor belt, to be dumped into Hungarian wagons on a parallel track. The whole process takes several hours. There is only a capacity of four trains a day here, to cross the railway bridge and back for more.
However, the quantity displaced is already ten times higher than in the pre-war period.
“We have 3,500 customers who have a lot of grain to export,” says Denys Mararenko of Ukrainian trading company Agrosem, which oversees transshipment. “There are a lot of bottlenecks in loading…we’re trying to set up a big supply chain. We have no other choice. He thanks the Hungarians for having released so many.
Competing in Constanta
At the Comvex terminal in the large deep-water port of Constanta in Romania, barley from Serbia and Romania rushes into the bowels of the Pretty Sight, a 30,000-ton ship registered in the Marshall Islands.
In 24 hours, 17,000 tons, or about half the capacity of the ships, will be loaded bound for Tunisia. The chaff of the grain blows everywhere, like a summer snowstorm. The docks here operate 24 hours a day, bringing in grain, not just from Ukraine, but from all over central Europe.
Constanta is the largest port in the entire Black Sea, shipping 65 million tons a year, even double the volume of Odessa. The problem here is that the port has been developed over the last decade as the main outlet for Romanian, Bulgarian, Serbian, Hungarian and Slovak grain to world markets. They are now competing for space in the dock area, even as Romanian and European money tries to increase capacity.
“Speed is everything,” says Viorel Panait, director of Comvex and president of the Constanta Port Business Association. Since the start of the war, his business has invested €4m (£3.1m; $4m), he says, mostly in new conveyors, and has doubled its turnover to 70,000 tons in and 70,000 tons out per day.
Of the 12 million tons of grain shipped from Constanta this year, only 1.2 million tons were Ukrainian.
But it’s not just about cereals. Ukraine must also export its minerals, says Panait. “We are also expecting iron ore. If we fail, the cost of fridges in people’s kitchens will double next year.
About 40% of the goods arriving in Constanta arrive by barge along the Danube. The rest is transported by rail and road. But the Ukrainian river ports, in Reni and Ismail, are overloaded. They were built for local river transport, and a long line of trucks returns from the river, deep into Ukraine.
Viorel Panait, president of the Constanta Port Companies Association, says “speed is everything”
It takes 36 hours for the barges to travel 250 km (155 miles) on the Danube to Cernavoda, then on the canal to Constanta. When the water is high, a barge can carry 1,800 tons. But the river’s low water level, blamed on climate change, means they cannot each fill to more than 1,300 tonnes.
What if the war ends, or if Turkey negotiates an agreement between Russia and Ukraine, to reopen Odessa and other ports? How long would it take to resume full transport from Ukraine, across the mine-strewn Black Sea, and restore transport corridors?
Six months is the most optimistic estimate, I hear. Others suggest a year or more.