Africa exposed to Black Sea grain blockade as Ukraine seeks plan B

Charity warns food scarcity could lead to insecurity and violence

Russia warned cargo ships in the Black Sea would no longer have safety guarantees. AP
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The collapse of the Black Sea grain deal is almost certain to cause a rise in food prices that will hit the Horn of Africa especially hard and could have ripple effects of insecurity and violence, The National has been told.

Russia on Tuesday issued a veiled threat to ships leaving Ukraine’s Black Sea coast, warning they faced “certain risks” and would sail “without appropriate security guarantees” after Moscow quit the pact.

Air commanders said the port of Odesa was damaged by Russian missile fragments within hours of the deal’s collapse, dealing a blow to Ukraine’s hopes of keeping the sea route open.

The US announced $250 million to help Ukrainian farmers build new export routes, as French President Emmanuel Macron said Russian leader Vladimir Putin had made a "huge mistake" in quitting the deal.

Kyiv is looking to tricky land and river trails to get grain to the world market that is in high demand from parts of the Middle East and Africa.

Parts of the Horn of Africa get as much as 90 per cent of their grain from the Black Sea region, charity bosses say. Ukraine has begun harvesting this year’s crops but is expecting a smaller yield of because of the war.

UN figures show 51 per cent of corn, 65 per cent of wheat and 82 per cent of sunflower oil exported under the Black Sea Grain Initiative went to the developing world, despite Russian complaints that it benefited rich countries.

Wheat prices rose further on a benchmark US index on Tuesday amid fears of a surging cost of food.

“It’s almost impossible not to think that it will go up and it will go up quite dramatically,” Josepha Ditisheim, head of humanitarian programmes at ActionAid, told The National.

She said the crisis would be felt “most profoundly” in the Horn of Africa, which includes Somalia and Ethiopia and where an estimated 36 million people face food shortages.

“If the prices go up again, because the dollar is currently depreciating, the food import bills for the countries already suffering will become more and more unaffordable and it will lead to more people experiencing famine,” she said.

The sea route

The Black Sea deal granted safe passage to ships leaving the ports of Odesa, Chernomorsk and Yuzhny on condition that Russia and Ukraine were allowed to inspect them.

It allowed 33 million tonnes of foodstuffs to be exported from Ukraine. China was the largest recipient followed by Spain, Turkey, Italy, the Netherlands, Egypt, Bangladesh and Israel.

Corn accounted for more than half the exports under the deal, which was brokered by the UN and Turkey. Russia said it had not been able to export its own food and fertiliser despite assurances under the pact.

It pulled out because of the “continued blocking of Russian bank payments, insurance and transport logistics” and the “loss of the humanitarian nature of the deal, frankly commercialised by Kyiv”, a statement on Tuesday said.

In Brussels, senior figures in the EU said their sanctions did not apply to food and called for the UN’s General Assembly to show its annoyance with Moscow.

“This is one of the worst things that Putin could have done, and he did it,” said the EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell.

Ukraine said it hoped to find a way to keep sending ships with the help of Turkey and the UN. Nikolay Gorbachov, the head of the Ukrainian Grain Association, told CNN that ships could be protected by the Turkish fleet or given guarantees by insurance brokers.

But Russia said it was withdrawing guarantees for the safety of navigation and designated part of the Black Sea a “dangerous area”.

If any arrangement is "formalised without Russia, then these risks should be taken into account", Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.

The land route

If the Black Sea remains blocked, Ukraine will turn to the more roundabout route of funnelling grain to neighbours such as Poland and Romania and having it exported from there.

This plan-B method was used before the grain deal was negotiated last year and helped get some Ukrainian produce to the market, but it cannot handle the same volume of goods.

Grain exporters want to expand the capacity of a route along the Danube to Romania, where cargo can be transferred from barges to ocean vessels that set sail at the port of Constanta.

The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development renewed a promise of a €9.6 million ($10.8 million) loan to speed up the rail route into Poland.

Delays are caused because, by accident of history, Ukraine has wider railway tracks than friendly neighbours such as Poland, meaning wheels typically need changing at the border. The bank plans to expand a storage terminal and build more tracks to ease this bottleneck.

Another Ukrainian neighbour, Belarus, does not have the track gauge problem but is a close Kremlin ally and using it for grain transit was previously ruled out by western officials.

US aid chief Samantha Power visited Odesa on Tuesday to promise funds for agricultural infrastructure and call for other countries and the private sector to match Washington’s $250 million offer.

The war has done an estimated $6.6 billion of damage to Ukraine’s agriculture sector, hitting land and equipment needed to store crops that are already being harvested.

The strike on Odesa came a day after Moscow vowed retaliation for an attack on a Crimea bridge that it blamed on Ukrainian drones. Kyiv said six missiles and 36 drones were launched at the south and east.

UN chief 'deeply regrets' Russia's withdrawal from Black Sea grain deal

UN chief 'deeply regrets' Russia's withdrawal from Black Sea grain deal

Dangers to the world

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres was among those warning of higher prices after Russia’s withdrawal threatened to squeeze the world market.

Ukraine’s reduced harvest means storage should not be as acute a problem as last year but the volume of food reaching some of the world’s most vulnerable countries is in doubt.

While Africa is a particular concern because of its reliance on Ukrainian grain, Sarah Champion, chairwoman of the UK parliament’s development committee, warned humanitarian aid to Afghanistan and Yemen could be affected too.

Ms Ditisheim said Turkey and Syria were also in danger as they recover from the earthquake in February. She warned a rise in prices could create a wider crisis if food scarcity leads to conflict.

Women and girls can be vulnerable when men who are seen as breadwinners fail to provide what society expects of them, she said.

“It’s not just a food issue, it’s going to have a ripple effect across any context,” she said.

“We’re seeing rates of gender-based violence as well that are increasing, specifically with the cost of living and a time of crisis, so it’s likely that the breakdown of the grain deal will worsen the situation for women and girls.”

Updated: July 18, 2023, 2:45 PM