CONSTANTA, Romania — After Ukraine’s seaports were blocked or captured by Russian forces, Romania’s neighboring Black Sea port of Constanta has emerged as a major conduit for the war-torn country’s grain exports amid a growing world food crisis.
It’s Romania’s largest port, home to Europe’s fastest-loading grain terminal, and has processed almost a million tons of grain from Ukraine — one of the world’s top exporters of wheat and corn — since the Feb. 24 invasion.
However, port operators say that without concerted support and investment from the European Union, it may soon be impossible to maintain, let alone increase, the volumes they handle.
“If we want to continue to help Ukrainian farmers, we need help to increase our handling capacity,” said Dan Dolghin, director of grain operations at the Black Sea port’s main Comvex operator.
“No single operator can invest in infrastructure that will become redundant after the end of the war,” he added.
Comvex can process up to 72,000 tons of grain per day. This and Constanta’s proximity to Ukraine by land and Suez Canal by sea make it currently the best route for Ukrainian agricultural exports. Other alternatives are road and rail transport across Ukraine’s western border to Poland and its Baltic Sea ports.
PHOTOS: Romanian port struggles to cope with Ukraine’s grain flow
Efforts to lift the Russian blockade have been unsuccessful, and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that up to 181 million people in 41 countries will face a food crisis or worse hunger this year linked to the Ukraine war could.
Just days after the Russian invasion, Comvex invested in a new unloading facility in anticipation that the neighboring country would have to redirect its agricultural exports.
This has enabled the port to ship nearly a million tons of Ukrainian grain over the past four months, most of it by barge down the Danube. But with Ukraine still blocking 20-fold volumes and with the summer harvest season fast approaching in Romania itself and other countries that use Constanta for their exports, Dolghin said the pace of Ukraine’s grain shipping through its port is likely to slow becomes.
“When the summer harvest picks up steam in Romania, all port operators will turn their attention to Romanian grain,” he warned.
Deputy Minister of Agriculture of Ukraine Markian Dmytrasevych is also concerned.
Speaking to the European Parliament earlier this month, Dmytrasevych said that if Constanta operators turn to European grain suppliers in the summer, “it will further complicate the export of Ukrainian products”.
Romanian and other EU officials have also expressed their concerns and have been lining up to promise support in recent weeks.
During a recent visit to Kyiv with leaders of France, Germany and Italy, Romanian President Klaus Iohannis said his country was looking at ways to overcome the “weaponization of grain exports by Russia.”
“As a relevant part of the solution to Russian-induced food insecurity, Romania is actively involved in facilitating the transit of Ukrainian exports and serving as a grain hub” to reach traditional markets in the Middle East, North Africa and parts of Asia, said he.
Among the solutions discussed in Kyiv, Iohannis said, were speeding up ship shipments on the Danube, speeding up their unloading in Romanian ports, new border crossings for trucks carrying Ukrainian grain, and reopening a disused railway line connecting Romania with Ukraine and Moldova.
A Romanian analyst said the search for alternative routes for Ukraine’s grain exports goes beyond private logistics companies or a single country, echoing Iohannis’ call in Kyiv for an international “coalition of the willing” to tackle the problem.
“The situation in Ukraine will not resolve itself any time soon; The conflict may end tomorrow, but tensions will continue. … That’s why new transport routes have to be considered and consolidated,” said George Vulcanescu.
He said that in this sense there are only three financially viable routes for Ukrainian exports – via Romania, Poland or the Baltic States.
However, he added: “Port operators need financial support from the Romanian authorities, but the funding should come from the European Union.”
Vulcanescu said a combination of quick and “minimum, not maximum” investments are needed.
“Big investments cannot be made quickly – we need to look for quick solutions to expand the (existing) storage and transhipment capacities of Romanian ports,” he added. “If we want to help Ukraine now, we have to look for smaller investments to improve the infrastructure that we already have.”
Comvex’s Dolghin said the operator wanted to help as much as possible, but added: “We hope for concrete action, not just statements in support of port operators.”
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