The Humanitarian Cost Of The Beirut Port Disaster

On August 4th, a colossal explosion marked a poignant change in the lives of people residing in Lebanon’s capital city of Beirut. The blast’s impact extended to Lebanon’s highly populated central districts and was felt even in Cyprus, 240km away. Infrastructure was damaged, people have been displaced, and many were injured. For a country already dealing with economic suffering, socio-political conflict, and a dangerous global pandemic, the explosion’s effects have been catastrophic.

The explosion began as a small fire, which caught a nearby port warehouse alight. The warehouse had been used by government authorities to hold 3,030 U.S. tons (2,700 metric tons) of ammonium nitrate for the past six years, transforming the fire into a colossal, ferocious explosion a mere 30 seconds later. Professor Andy Tyas, an industry expert on blast protection engineering, considers the disaster one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history. City officials declared a state of emergency for two weeks following the incident.

The areas surrounding the port are densely populated, and the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Human Affairs reported that the explosion greatly damaged both the port and its surrounding neighbourhoods. 120 schools were also destroyed. Moreover, the World Health Organization reported that damage from the blast has shut down at least three hospitals. Facilities and personnel struggle with the lack of infrastructure and the sheer amount of people needing medical attention. Additionally, hospital personnel report nightmares, flashbacks, and fear of another explosion, causing them to be overwhelmed while working. Therefore, many residents of Beirut cannot access appropriate medical care.

While the explosion is the most devastating crisis Lebanon has faced recently, it is one of many. According to the Guardian, “nearly half of the country’s population lives below the poverty line and 35% are out of work.” Thus, this March, Lebanon defaulted on its economic debts. Moreover, the economic hardships of the country have led to rising tension between the government and citizens, creating an atmosphere of political unrest. This was only compounded when civilian protest following the disaster brought government officials to resign. Furthermore, the country has approximately more than 6,800 cases of COVID-19, and social distancing and other preventative measures could not be exercised in the days after the blast. This led to another spike of cases, as well as further strain on the healthcare system.

Residents’ everyday lives have come to a halt and people are left shell-shocked. Photos and videos circulating through news outlets and social media illustrate the blast’s grave effects. The trauma of the disaster is striking.

Living conditions in Beirut are dire. Areas of the city have been reduced to rubble and the social cost has been devastatingly palpable. More than 150 people were killed and 5,000 were reported wounded on the day of the explosion, and this figure is increasing. Lebanese authorities estimate 300,000 people are left homeless, and Beirut’s governor, Marwan Aboud, reported that “half of Beirut’s population have homes that are unlivable for the foreseeable future… for the next two weeks.” Families and individuals have been forced into finding temporary dwellings, and according to local reports, as many as 500,000 people might require assistance in the form of food, shelter, and clothing.

This crisis has led many countries and global organizations to involve themselves in the Lebanese socio-political environment. Volunteers from Iran, Morocco, France, Russia, and Turkey have set up temporary hospitals to aid patients. Additionally, the United States Agency for International Development has pledged $18 million in humanitarian aid.

The primary objective is to rebuild Beirut. Yet many residents remain concerned with the lack of accountability and transparency from government officials. By facilitating the transition to a new government and investigating the port disaster to ensure transparency, these efforts from other countries attempt to curb the corruption in Lebanon. The implications are decisive. Involving external bodies allows for measures of protection for the residents of Lebanon, most importantly Beirut, to ensure they are receiving appropriate funds and aid to rebuild their city.