[Published here August 7, 2020]
Precious wheat spilled out of disembowelled silos, mixing with soot, debris and cement: Beirut’s port blast has gutted Lebanon’s largest grain storage and sparked public panic over bread shortages.
The annihilation of the port in Tuesday’s explosion has further strained food access for a population that relies on imports for 85 percent of what it eats.
That includes wheat to produce staple flat bread, mandatory at every Lebanese meal and now sold at the state-subsidised price of 2,000 Lebanese pounds per 900-gramme-bag.
“When we saw the silos, we panicked,” said Ghassan Bou Habib, CEO of Lebanon’s Wooden Bakery pastry franchise.
Some 15,000 tonnes of wheat, corn and barley were blasted out of the towering 55-year-old silos and a nearby mill was destroyed.
At least one ship unloading wheat during the explosion was damaged, its stocks inedible.
Lebanese bread makers and consumers fear the loss of the 120,000-tonne capacity silos will compound months of wheat worries, making bread harder to produce and ultimately more expensive for a population that has already seen its purchasing power slashed.
A liquidity crisis since the autumn saw banks halt dollar transfers abroad, which hampered imports.
Container activity had already declined by 45 percent in the first half of 2020 compared to last year, according to Blominvest Bank, while the staggering devaluation of the Lebanese pound led to major price hikes.
“We were already struggling with the (little) wheat and flour that were available. The mills weren’t getting enough or they didn’t have fuel to run,” Bou Habib said.
– ‘How the poor get full’ –
Even before the explosion, Wooden Bakery’s 50 branches were only getting two-thirds of the 70 tonnes of flour they need daily.
“Now, our central kitchen isn’t producing enough to fill shelves,” said Bou Habib.
The day after the blast, hundreds of customers flocked to the Al-Kaboushieh Bakery in Beirut’s Hamra district to stock up on bread.
“Were completely sold out. Everyone was buying five bags instead of one in case there’d be no more,” said employee Hayder Mussawi.
“Bread is the only way the poor get full: we’re not sitting eating steak with a fork and knife,” he told AFP.
Officials have tried to mollify fears of shortages, saying wheat already in the country would last a month and new shipments would arrive this week at Lebanon’s two other ports, Tripoli in the north and Sidon in the south.
But they lack silos, pointed out Moussa Khoury, a farming entrepreneur who ran Beirut’s grain storage from 2014 to 2017.
“There’s nothing like Beirut port, where grain was being unloaded from ships or pulled from the silos 24 hours a day,” Khoury told AFP.
He agreed shops wouldn’t immediately see bread shortages but said “enormous problems” would begin to appear in the coming months.
“Smaller ports in Tripoli and Sidon means lengthier and costlier offloading,” which could be added to consumer prices, Khoury said.
Mill owners have already calculated that trucking wheat 80 kilometres (50 miles) from Tripoli to Beirut would cost an extra $6 per tonne, said Arslan Sinno, president of Lebanon’s Dora Mills.
“Who will pay for that? Us?” Sinno asked bitterly.
– ‘Cherry’ tops cake –
Sinno told AFP stocks in the silos and mills had already been low because of delays by the central bank in paying foreign suppliers.
“Other suppliers may not want to come anymore because of security concerns,” he said.
The United Nations is also sounding the alarm, warning on Thursday that with the port unusable, food prices would soar “beyond the reach of many”.
For months, initiatives like the Lebanese Food Bank (LFB) have been distributing baskets to desperate families, including bread donated by some of the mills and bakeries now hard-hit.
Since Tuesday’s blast, LFB volunteers have gone into overdrive, giving out sandwiches and snacks to families whose homes were damaged, said Suha Zaiter, LFB’s executive manager.
More than 10,000 people have donated online, while others have provided cash or in-kind contributions to help those affected.
“People don’t have time to cook right now as they’re cleaning their houses,” said Zaiter.
But even her initiative may feel the pinch.
One bakery was donating 500 bags of bread a day to LFB before the explosion, but told the group it could not boost the donation given the wheat shortage.
“We were already dealing with COVID-19 and the economic crisis, then this disastrous day happened,” Zaiter told AFP.
“It’s the cherry on top of the cake.”