CONSTANTA: Like a giant elephant trunk, a huge hose sweeps above the hold of a ship in Romania’s Black Sea port of Constanta, spilling tons of corn into the vessel before it sets sail.
Russia’s blockade of Ukraine’s seaports has forced the country’s exporters to look for alternatives to move their precious cargo.
So now the country’s grain is loaded onto trains, lorries or barges in the small Danube ports of Reni and Izmail in the southwest, for transport to the Romanian port.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has transformed Constanta into a vital maritime export hub for Ukraine’s crops.
Before the war, Ukraine exported 4.5 million tonnes of agricultural produce per month through its ports – 12 percent of the world’s wheat, 15 percent of its corn and 50 percent of its sunflower oil.
“We need to make sure the grain gets to consumers’ tables without delay to avoid the risk of famine,” said Viorel Panait, chief executive of Comvex, which handles Constanta’s bulk raw materials.
“We hope to accelerate the pace… because, given the unfortunate situation that our Ukrainian neighbours are going through, we must help them as much as we can,” he told AFP.
Neighbouring Bulgaria said this week it was willing to help export Ukrainian grain from its Black Sea port of Varna – and is getting to work upgrading its infrastructure.
In the meantime, Constanta is moving the cargo as fast as it can.
The Lady Dimine, the ship being loaded with corn, is the second grain vessel since last week to moor at Pier 80, bound for Portugal once loaded.
The first ship, loaded with 70,000 tonnes of Ukrainian corn, left Constanta last Friday, and a third is scheduled in six days.
That first ship, carrying a 70,000-ton cargo, took 49 trains or barges to fill up, said Panait.
Loading such vessels in a port that was not properly equipped would mean thousands of trucks clogging up the roads, he added.
Even before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Constanta had overtaken France’s Le Havre last year to become Europe’s hub for grain exports, said the port’s director, Florin Goidea.
Now, he said: “Our goal is to ship the goods as quickly as possible and thus support the Ukrainian economy.”
His office offered a breathtaking view of the work at the dockside, bristling with cranes and ship loaders.
“The war in Ukraine is a challenge but also an opportunity,” Goidea said.
Projects in pipeline
To meet that challenge, Romania’s government has come up with two projects to unblock road traffic and facilitate the flow of cargo to the port.
First, it plans by the end of the year to have fixed up 95 railway lines dating back to the communist era, blocked for years by hundreds of rusting wagons.
The 200-million-lei (40 million euros) project should allow Constanta to match or even beat the record of 67.5 million tonnes of goods in transit recorded in 2021, said Goidea.
The transport ministry is also seeking bids for work to re-open a five-kilometre (three-mile) railway line, more than 200 kilometres to the north of Constanta.
That line would connect Giurgiulesti in Moldova – wedged between Romania and Ukraine – to Galati on the Danube, in eastern Romania.
That short crossover is crucial, as they share the same railway track gauge used in the former Soviet Union, making it easier to transport goods.
The renovation of the track is planned for this summer.
At Constanta meanwhile, traffic in the other direction has stalled.
Dozens of wind turbine parts that had been bound for Ukraine lie abandoned along one of the congested roads.
“There is no one left to send them to,” said a port employee.