Erenhot port’s closure manifests into supply shortage

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It’s been over a week since the Chinese side closed the port of Erenhot on October 13. Mongolia imports more than 35 percent of its products from China, 26 percent from Russia, 7 percent from Japan, and 4.5 percent from Russia, and trades with 142 countries, according to the General Customs Office. It trades with China through more than 10 border checkpoints, including Bulgan, Gashuunsukhait, Khavirga, and Sekhee, but the Erenhot-Zamyn-Uud is the main port for importing key food and consumer goods.

A team from Unuudur newspaper reported on the situation in shops and markets earlier this week. They went to Bars Shopping Center at 10:30 a.m. last Friday. Outside the glass-made pavilion selling vegetables and fruits, all baskets were empty and the saleswoman was locking up the door.

Journalists clarified a few things from her.

Did you run out of stocks because of the border closure?

You could say that. I have some fruits to sell but almost all greenhouse vegetables are sold out. In addition to Chinese products, we sell domestically grown cucumbers, tomatoes, lettuce and spinach. I get new supplies two or three times a week, but managed to do so only once this week. Demand for vegetables locally grown in greenhouses has increased, and all of my supplies were sold out this morning.

Do you think there will be a shortage of fruits if China closed its border for a long time? The price of greenhouse vegetables has risen significantly, right?

If the border is not opened, the supply of not only fruits and vegetables but also chocolate, dried fruits, nuts, gum, coffee and milk powder will be disrupted. As far as I know, more than half of the food sold to Bars Shopping Center comes from China. Also, the price of vegetables has increased following news of border closure. A small number of domestic suppliers increased the price of cucumbers, tomatoes, lettuce and cauliflower by about 5,000 MNT to 20,000 MNT per kg. Bell peppers were sold out in one hour today.

When the team of journalists arrived at Bayanzurkh Market at noon, vendors at the crowded stalls had plenty of fruits and vegetables, and were asking “What do you want to buy?” The market had an abundant amount of fruits and vegetables, except for cucumbers. Vendors said that the supply of cucumbers had decreased and its price went up by 5,000 to 6,000 MNT per kg almost every week.

E.Tuul, who sells canned fish, spices, vinegar, kimchi and mushrooms at Bayanzurkh Market, said, “I sell Korean food, but I import my products through Zamyn-Uud. If the Erenhot port is not opened any time soon, supplies of almost all of the 16 types of products I sell will be cut off. As long as people don’t buy in large quantities, I will have sufficient supplies until the end of this month.”

A vendor, who sells various noodles, rice, vegetables and butter at the market said he wasn’t too concerned about the border closure as he import products from Russia. However, over the past year, the prices of Russian imported goods such as vegetable oil, rice, pasta, and salt have increased by at least 1,000 MNT per kg and by almost 7,000 to 10,000 MNT per package.

Small grocery stores have also been hit by the shortage. M.Undrakh, who has a shop in 8th khoroo of Chingeltei District, clarified on the supply of his products. He said, “Imports have been declining since the outbreak and congestion at the Chinese border. For instance, the most popular instant noodles, seaweed, butter, ketchup and some toilet paper have stopped coming. Even some Mongolian toilet papers are packaged and brought from China. Nong shim noodles are imported from South Korea but come through China, and all kinds of batteries come from our southern neighbor.”

There were no cucumbers at the State Department Store last Tuesday afternoon. A seller said he did not know when more supplies would come. This shows that the supply of rice, sugar and pasta imported from Russia remains unaffected, but products imported from China are in short supply. Due to the increased demand for vegetables and the small number of domestic suppliers, greenhouse vegetables are quickly running out and their prices have increased by 30 to 40 percent in just a week. Depending on how long the border is closed, there could be a shortage of more goods, and prices may rise further. It might be wise to stockpile on vegetable oil, rice and pasta just in case.

The Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Light Industry told reporters on Tuesday that the country is facing a shortage of greenhouse vegetables. Officials noted that negotiations are underway between the Foreign Ministries of China and Mongolia to bring perishable food and greenhouse vegetables by train from Erenhot. The Mongolian side also proposed sending out a small number of trucks to bring food from Erenhot to Zamyn-Uud. However, Minister of Food, Agriculture and Light Industry Z.Mendsaikhan did not rule out the possibility that the frequency of border closures will increase and the cargo turnover will slow down due to the pandemic and other factors. He didn’t know how long the Erenhot port would be closed this time and when the border traffic would return to normal.

In addition, as it’s expensive to build winter greenhouses, there is a lack of government funding for those who want to start operating a greenhouse. The only way to attract investment is through a project. More than 10 days ago, the Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Light Industry announced that it was possible to cooperate with China’s Tianjin Food in the development of greenhouses, but it was unclear whether the company would cooperate because it was a low-profit offer.

Bright Logistics LLC clarified on this, “We have a container truck and usually transport food by truck. However, 4,000 containers were stranded at the port of Tianjin last May. Negotiations have been held between the two countries, and it was reported that transportation is continuing normally, but at most 1,000 of the containers have been ‘moved’ and the rest remain in their spots. Transportation to Mongolia by car and train has become more difficult and time-consuming. It’s more of a matter of foreign relations than an impact of the pandemic.”

The supply of vegetables, food, medicine and medical equipment has declined, and some products in pharmacies are in shortage. For example, a pharmacy in 1st khoroo of Chingeltei District is running out of Novocain, elastic needles, disposable gloves, some medical devices, and some antibiotics. The pharmacist said, “Strict curfews were imposed last winter, and since the Erenhot to Zamyn-Uud freight has been slowing down, there has been a shortage of medicines and medical supplies. Now there is no IV system or emergency antibiotics. People think that most drugs are supplied from Russia, but it is not. In particular, almost all medical supplies come from China. It may be ok not to eat greenhouse vegetables, but it is dangerous for people who need to take antibiotics and other medication if they don’t consume them regularly. As a professional, I’m worried about this.”

Senior Specialist in Drug Supply at the Ministry of Health E.Buyandelger said, “We are talking about getting the necessary medicines, injections, drips and medical supplies by train. There are two domestic companies that produce IV drip and injections. They provide supplies to hospitals. We are working to restock inventories of pharmacies within this week.”

Some ordinary residents were asked to comment about how they felt about the shortage of imported goods and the rising prices of vegetables and fruits. While some were upset, others seemed happy. Resident of Bayanzurkh District G.Enkh said, “It is good that China has closed the Erenhot port. We will not die when we have meat, flour and potatoes. We can just wear the deel and clothing made of wool and cashmere. We need to produce more domestically.”

Resident of Chingeltei District O.Gansukh said, “All equipment and materials used to make the deel and other clothing are imported from China. The volume and variety of goods and products produced domestically should be increased, but we are not there yet. We are a nation completely dependent on imports. Instead, we need to increase our stocks and be prepared for whatever situation. We can only move forward by maintaining open and friendly relations with our two neighbors.”

According to the Food Law, Mongolia is to build stockpiles of strategic food stocks to ensure stable food supply and access to the population during cold seasons. Article 6.1 of the same law states that the government shall approve the procedure for creating and distributing strategic food stocks.

The Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Light Industry provided an update on the implementation of this law and the local food supply. It said, “We have reserves of rice, potatoes, vegetables, sugar, milk powder, salt and eggs enough to cover 20 to 40 days of consumption nationwide. If the transportation is not interrupted, it is possible to maintain this level. However, the supply of vegetables and some imported goods has decreased and prices are rising.”

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