By Edmund Blair
BEIRUT (Reuters) - Beirut port's capacity to handle wheat and other bulk cereal imports has collapsed to about a fifth or less of its level before a massive blast smashed its grain silos and other facilities, a senior U.N. official said on Thursday.
But Abdallah Alwardat, the country director for the World Food Programme (WFP), told Reuters that he did not see Lebanon heading towards a food crisis, although he said his organisation was keeping a close eye and was ready to step in if necessary.
Beirut port had capacity to handle some 10,000-15,000 tonnes of wheat and other bulk imports each day before a huge Aug. 4 explosion destroyed the country's only grain silos and turned warehouses and other port infrastructure into a mangled wreck.
But limited bulk handling of 1,500-3,000 tonnes a day had been restored, allowing the WFP to unload a shipment of 12,500 tonnes of wheat flour, or about half a month's supply for Lebanon, Alwardat said.
Meanwhile the container port, further from the blast's epicentre, escaped relatively unscathed and is now able to meet container import needs, port officials say.
"Our initial assessment (of the blast) was that this is really going to be a serious bottleneck," the WFP's Alwardat said. "But luckily enough what we have seen lately is the commercial sector in Lebanon has been picking up very fast."
He said the response of commercial grain importers, which have been able to divert at least some supplies to other smaller ports, meant market needs were being met and the WFP was able to put on hold an emergency plan to import 100,000 tonnes of wheat.
But Alwardat said there was an urgent need to rebuild bulk capacity at Beirut port, which used to handle about 70% to 80% of Lebanon's needs.
The need for imports to flow smoothly is all the more pressing because Lebanon does not have grain reserves. The Beirut port silos could hold about 120,000 tonnes, about three months' supply, but were used as temporary storage. They held about 15,000 tonnes when the silos were destroyed in the blast.
"We always encourage governments or certain sectors to have three months food reserve. Why? Because of the lead time to get any procurement overseas needs two to three months," Alwardat said.
He said millers reported having capacity for about 120,000 tonnes. "But numbers need to be verified," he said.
The government has said that, prior to the blast, there were plans to create a reserve of about 40,000 tonnes.
(Reporting by Edmund Blair; Editing by Mark Heinrich)