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Thu 13 Aug 2020 10:09 AM

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Lebanon builds wheat stocks as blast sparks food shortage fears

The blast on August 4 tore through major grain silos in Beirut's port, stoking fears of deeper food scarcities in a nation already reeling from an economic crisis

Lebanon builds wheat stocks as blast sparks food shortage fears

The country has 32,000 tons of flour in storage and an additional 110,000 tons will arrive within two weeks, according to Raoul Nehme, the minister of economy and trade.

The United Nations is sending grain to Lebanon to avert a food crisis following last week’s explosion in Beirut that killed 160 people and destroyed grain silos.

The World Food Programme will ship 50,000 tons of wheat flour to Beirut, enough to supply Lebanon for three months, it and the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, another UN body, said Tuesday. The first batch of 17,500 tons should arrive next week.

The shipments will go to bakeries and millers and “ensure there is no food shortage,” OCHA said.

A huge blast on August 4 tore through major grain silos in Beirut’s port, stoking fears of deeper food scarcities in a nation already reeling from an economic crisis. The explosion, which caused billions of dollars’ worth of damage, occurred next to a grain store and left the country with only six weeks of flour reserves, half the standard amount to ensure food security, the UN said.

“Grain silos have been mostly destroyed, causing fears of skyrocketing food prices,” the WFP said.

Lebanon relies on privately owned mills to ship wheat from Ukraine, Russia and other European countries. The government used to buy grain from local farmers at above-market prices but hasn’t done so in years. Other food is also mostly imported.

The country has 32,000 tons of flour in storage and an additional 110,000 tons will arrive within two weeks, according to Raoul Nehme, the minister of economy and trade. The government he’s a member of resigned on Monday amid mass protests over the catastrophe, but it remains in office in a caretaker capacity.

“No stock crisis, no bread crisis!” Nehme tweeted in Arabic on Wednesday.

The blast exacerbates the plight of the Arab nation, which has been battered this year by the coronavirus pandemic and a financial meltdown. The government defaulted on around $30 billion of Eurobonds in March and has been trying to get a bailout from the International Monetary Fund.

Foreign exchange has dried up, causing a collapse in the Lebanese pound and shortages of food and fuel. Overall inflation in June stood at 90%, and for food alone it was almost 250%, according to the government’s statistics agency.

“The explosion was yet another cruel blow to the people of Lebanon,” Najat Rochdi, the UN’s Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for Lebanon, said in comments to Bloomberg. “Even before this tragedy, too many children were going to bed hungry. The far-reaching implications of the blast will only put more pressure on families already on the brink.”

The WFP plans to expand its cash-assistance program in the country almost 10-fold to one million people. It’s also increasing the value of its food cards by 73% to 70,000 Lebanese pounds ($46 at the official exchange rate; $9.33 at the black-market rate most Lebanese people have to use) because of the high inflation.

The WFP has started airlifting mobile-storage units for grain to Beirut to replace the silos until they’re repaired. The first plane landed in the city on Saturday and two more are on their way, it said.

“WFP has the capacity to launch a shipping operation that does not require port infrastructure,” the UN said. “WFP has the capacity to ship, deliver and unload wheat flour and bulk wheat grains directly into Beirut.”

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