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Russia-Ukraine war: Kakhovka Dam collapse another blow to Middle East wheat security

Ukraine's wheat, barley, and rapeseed harvest is expected to fail due to flooding after the collapse of Kakhovka Dam's walls
A local resident makes her way through a flooded road after the walls of the Kakhovka dam collapsed overnight in Kherson, Ukraine, 6 June 2023 (AP)
A local resident makes her way through a floodwater after the Kakhovka dam collapsed, Kherson, Ukraine, 6 June 2023 (AP)

Fingers are pointed in Ukraine and Russia, as both countries accuse the other of having caused the destruction of the Kakhovka Dam as water burst from the structure on Tuesday flooding homes and agricultural fields across Ukraine's southeast. 

But the impact goes further much further afield, a result of Ukraine's status as one of the world's leading producers of agricultural crops such as wheat and barley.

Flooding from the Kakhovka Dam, in Ukraine's Russian-controlled Kherson region, has already led to a spike in global crop prices, with wheat up 2.4 percent on Tuesday, and corn up one percent, before coming down slightly by Thursday.

Analysts have now said that the Middle East will feel the effect of the damage to agricultural produce in a region that has become a breadbasket for the world, much as it did when exports slowed at the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine last year. 

Fadel el-Zubi, a former representative in Iraq for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, told Middle East Eye that flooding from the dam would severely hinder Kherson's ability to produce grain.

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"The floods will end agriculture in the area and hinder fish farming, and prevent farmers from accessing the lands," Zubi said. "Plus, chemicals and pollution will seep into the water, and we could see mines move to the surface and detonate."

UN economists believe that this year's wheat, barley, and rapeseed harvest in Ukraine's southern areas will be completely lost as a result of the flooding. 

But crops planted in spring, such as maize, soybeans, and sunflowers could survive if the flooding subsides. 

Kakhovka is a Soviet-era dam sitting on the Dnipro River. Water stored in the dam was used to supply farms growing fruits, grains, and wheat.

It held a colossal 18 cubic kilometres of water that was also used for the nearby hydroelectric power plant and the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant, both sites are under Russian occupation east of the Dnipro River.

Residents of the Russian-occupied Crimea peninsula will also be affected, with 70,000 in the region now in need of clean water. 

Winter's crop ruined

Hussam Ayesh, a Jordanian economic expert, told MEE that the affected winter harvest cannot be replaced, meaning grain prices in the Middle East can be expected to rise. 

'In Egypt, the prices of grain have doubled since the war on Ukraine, particularly wheat, and this has affected the value of the Egyptian pound and increased the cost of living' 

- Hussam Ayseh, economic expert

Wheat is a lifeline for Egypt, with the country's 100-million-strong population heavily reliant on bread as a staple food.

At the start of the Russian invasion, Egypt imported 85 percent of its wheat from Ukraine and Russia.

Egypt is one of the largest importers of wheat globally. Between July 2020 and June 2021, it imported 13.3m tonnes of wheat, 8.96m tonnes of that from Russia.

But that has decreased as the war temporarily disrupted grain shipments from the Black Sea and damaged arable areas. 

Instead, Egypt has tried to turn to its own agricultural industry. To motivate farmers to grow wheat this season, in April the Egyptian government raised the price of 150 kilograms of wheat to almost 1,500 Egyptian pounds ($48.59), a roughly 50 percent increase from last year.

That is despite Egypt historically seeing multiple uprisings in protest at hikes in the prices of bread and wheat.

'A political message'

While Egypt and many other countries in the region are reliant on imported wheat, Turkey is one of the few that is largely self-sufficient, producing 20 million tons to meet its domestic needs.

"Turkey imports wheat but only to use in commercial products that it will then export... Some of those imports come from Russia and Ukraine, but Turkey's food security does not rely on it," Ayesh said.

Last year, the amount of wheat produced globally was 770 million tons. Zubi told MEE that only around 200 million tons of wheat are exchanged in the global market. The rest is consumed domestically.

Ukraine's yearly wheat export before the war was around 16 million tons, while Russia exported 43 million tons.

"I think the prices will go down to their previous levels," Zubi said. "Ukraine's grain and wheat production had already taken a big hit when the war started."

"Ukraine's share in wheat export is not huge compared to other countries. The countries that depended on Ukraine increased their wheat stock [from other sources] this year, and I don't think there will be significant demand. So prices will stabilise."

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