Tuesday’s explosion in the port of Beirut may have long-lasting impacts on Lebanon’s precarious food security, wheat importers fear.
The blast, which killed dozens and injured hundreds on Tuesday, appeared to have significantly damaged Lebanon’s national wheat silos, situated in the port.
The silo contains essential grain reserves including wheat, corn, and barely. Lebanon, which imports up to 80 percent of its food needs, is particularly reliant on imported soft wheat to make Arabic flatbread, a national staple.
But more concerning than the damaged goods is Lebanon’s ability to continue importing essentials such as wheat. Only 16.9 percent of Lebanon’s wheat supply is grown locally, making Beirut’s largest port an important lifeline for the country.
The blast damaged two vessels offloading wheat at the time of the explosion, in addition to port machinery for discharging goods, and machinery within the silos.
Ahmad Hoteit, President of the Syndicate of Lebanese Food Industries, worries that slowed wheat imports will pose serious problems for a government already struggling to feed its population. By early 2020, around half of Lebanese people struggled to buy basic food essentials due to the plummeting economy.
Watch: The Saint George hospital in the Geitawi neighborhood of #Beirut has been damaged and is without electricity, with doctors treating patients in the parking lot following the blasts in Port Beirut, footage from our correspondent shows.#Lebanonhttps://t.co/GIZh87KXCO pic.twitter.com/sR0CAPHrSp— Al Arabiya English (@AlArabiya_Eng) August 4, 2020
Bread is one of the few food items which has not increased in price during recent currency inflation. This is thanks to government subsidies to keep this essential item affordable – but this relies on the steady inflow of wheat from abroad.
“It will be difficult if we have a wheat import shortage. We don’t know if the port can continue to function,” Hoteit told Al Arabiya English.
While the extent of the damage to the silo’s grain reserves is still unclear, it is likely that the estimated 15,000 tonnes of wheat stored in the silos will be unfit for consumption after the explosion.
The blast was caused by a fire in an area containing highly explosive material, such as Sodium nitrate, according to Lebanon's Head of General Security. The presence of Sodium nitrate will render the silo’s remaining wheat unusable, Hoteit added.
A full examination of the silo’s contents and the impact of toxic chemicals will be carried out on Wednesday morning, according to Hoteit. The silo’s manager Assaad Haddad could not be reached for comment.
The nearby Bakalian Flour Mills, located near the port, was also impacted by the blast.
“The mill is not really ok but we will deal with it tomorrow,” Patricia Bakalian, chief executive officer of the mill told Al Arabiya English. Bakalian herself is currently recovering from the blast, after being caught “very close to the fire” at the time of the explosion.
Mill owners will convene on Wednesday to assess the damage to their equipment and stocks, according to Bakalian, who was unable to comment on the extent of the damage to her mill.