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CONSTANTA, Romania (AP) — With Ukrainian seaports blocked or captured by Russian forces, the nearby Romanian Black Sea port of Constanta has become the main conduit for grain exports from the war-torn country in a context of a growing global food crisis.

It’s Romania’s largest port, home to Europe’s fastest grain terminal, and has handled almost a million tonnes of grain from Ukraine – one of the world’s largest wheat exporters and maize – since the February 24 invasion.

But port operators say maintaining, let alone increasing, the volume they handle may soon be impossible without concerted support and investment from the European Union.

“If we want to continue to help Ukrainian farmers, we need help to increase our handling capacities,” said Dan Dolghin, director of grain operations at the main operator Comvex in the Black Sea port.

“No operator can invest alone in an infrastructure that will become superfluous once the war is over,” he added.

Comvex can process up to 72,000 tonnes of grain per day. This and Constanta’s proximity by land to Ukraine and by sea to the Suez Canal make it the current best route for Ukrainian agricultural exports. Other alternatives include road and rail shipments across Ukraine’s western border to Poland and its Baltic Sea ports.

Efforts to lift the Russian blockade have come to nothing, and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations predicts that up to 181 million people in 41 countries could face a food crisis or worse levels of hunger this year in connection with the war in Ukraine.

Just days after the start of the Russian invasion, Comvex invested in a new offloading facility, anticipating that the neighboring country would have to re-route its agricultural exports.

This has enabled the port over the past four months to ship almost a million tonnes of Ukrainian grain, most of it arriving by barge on the Danube. But with 20 times that amount still stuck in Ukraine and the summer harvest season fast approaching in Romania itself and other countries that use Constanta for their exports, Dolghin said the pace of shipments is likely Ukrainian grain through its port will slow down.

“As the summer harvest in Romania gathers pace, all port operators will turn to Romanian cereals,” he warned.

Ukrainian Deputy Agriculture Minister Markian Dmytrasevych is also worried.

In an address to the European Parliament earlier this month, Dmytrasevych said that when operators in Constanta turn to European grain suppliers this summer “it will further complicate the export of Ukrainian products”.

Romanian and other EU officials have also expressed concern, lining up in recent weeks to pledge support.

During a recent visit to Kyiv with the leaders of France, Germany and Italy, Romanian President Klaus Iohannis said his country was looking for possible ways to overcome “the armament of grain exports by Russia”.

“As a relevant part of the solution to the food insecurity generated by Russia, Romania is actively involved in facilitating the transit of Ukrainian exports and serving as a hub for cereals”, to reach the traditional markets of the Middle East, North Africa and certain regions. from Asia, he said.

Solutions discussed in Kyiv, Iohannis said, included speeding up barge shipments on the Danube, increasing the speed of their unloading at Romanian ports, new border crossings for trucks carrying Ukrainian grain, and reopening of a disused railway linking Romania to Ukraine and Moldova.

A Romanian analyst said finding alternative routes for Ukrainian grain exports went beyond private logistics companies or any other country, echoing Iohannis’ call in Kyiv for an “international coalition of the willing” to tackle the problem.

“The situation in Ukraine will not be resolved anytime soon; the conflict may end tomorrow, but the tensions will last. … This is why new transport routes must 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 funding should come from the European Union.”

Vulcanescu said a combination of rapid and “minimum, not maximum” investment is needed.

“Big investments cannot be made quickly – we need to look for quick solutions to expand the (existing) storage and handling capacities of Romanian ports,” he added. “If we want to help Ukraine now, we need to look for smaller investments to improve the infrastructure we already have.”

Comvex’s Dolghin said the operator wanted to help as much as possible, but added: “We hope to see concrete action, not just statements of support for port operators.”

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