Last Tuesday, the world watched as a massive explosion shook Lebanon. The blast threw up a massive plume of smoke and sent shockwaves though downtown Beirut, before videos of the event went viral and rocked the rest of the world. As a viewer in South Africa, very far away from the event itself, there’s only one thing I can liken the experience of watching the footage to one other – staring with horror and disbelief at the television on 11 September 2001. It’s impossible to watch the viral footage of the Beirut explosion without feeling for all the people in the city who were going about their day when it happened, and without the nagging fear that this kind of explosion could happen anywhere. We have a lot going on this year, but before the next viral news story comes around, perhaps we should talk about Lebanon. They’re grappling with a lot more than only the after-effects of last Tuesday’s blast.
The Beirut explosion
The blast that happened last Tuesday is said to have been caused by stores ammonium nitrate confiscated years ago and stored in the city’s port. It registered as 3.3 on the Richter scale. It shattered windows, sent up a dust cloud that rushed through the entire port. In addition, it filled the air with particulate matter – known to predispose people to serious effects of respiratory diseases – particularly unhelpful with COVID-19 still rife.
The ammonium nitrate being blamed for the explosion is commonly used in fertilisers and explosives for mining projects. It was allegedly abandoned in the port in 2013 after a Russian cargo ship experienced problems at sea. It seems it was largely forgotten after that –except by the Lebanese customs officials who requested its removal on at least six occasions, to no avail.
This blast isn’t the first calamity caused by the explosive substance. According to National Geographic, Since 1916, ammonium nitrate has been responsible for at least 30 disasters. It may not be the last either. Since the incident in Beirut, a community in Australia is starting to feel uncomfortable with the fact that about 12,000 tonnes of the substance is being stored just 800m away from their residential area. This is four times the amount that devastated Lebanon’s capital and could cause even more destruction in the case of a similar event.
To learn more about how Ammonium Nitrate explodes, read this article by National Geographic.
In its wake, the Beirut explosion left over 5000 people injured, over 130 dead, and 300,000 who cannot return to their homes. According to National Geographic, the damage could cost the Middle-Eastern nation up to $15 billion. And that’s something the country isn’t in a position to afford – nor do the people of Lebanon want aid donations to go to their government.
The mismanaged economy
Since the blast, the people of Beirut have been requesting that aid not be given to their government – which has a history of using such funds unwisely and lining the pockets of the people in charge. The nation was already deep into an economic crisis before last week’s blast, and most do not want to see it worsened on account of the mismanagement of aid money.
According to Vox, “the nation’s leaders mismanaged the economy for decades with a Ponzi-like scheme whisking away the hard-earned money of Lebanese people from banks to keep the government afloat, pay off public debts, and line the pockets of those in charge”. This broken policy only came to an end with Lebanese banks ran our of money last year – causing Lebanese workers to lose their savings and livelihoods.
In fact, in late 2019 New York Times writer Lina Mounzer wrote that Lebanon was already “without a doubt on the precipice of disaster”.
“Already supermarket shelves are sparser and prices are rising by the day. Many people’s salaries are being slashed; others are being fired outright. Hospitals warn that they will soon be running out of medication, including anaesthetic, because they don’t have enough dollars to pay for imports”.
Those who have been hardest hit by the failed economy were, of course, the country’s most vulnerable. This includes, according to the New Humanitarian, an estimated 1.5 million Syrian refugees and hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees . Food prices have skyrocketed while people have less money to spend, and an increasing number of families have been threatened with eviction.
With their country at crisis point and their economy in free fall, it’s no wonder the Lebanese people took to the streets in 2o19 to protest. In fact, the civil unrest that took hold in the last quarter of 2019 is being described as “the most comprehensive anti-government protests the country has seen at least since the civil war ended in 1990, in terms of numbers, geographic spread, and diversity of sect and class”. It led to the forced resignation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri on 29 October, in a move which sent panic through the international community, much of which supported him. Since then, the entire world – and Lebanon is no exception – has been struggling to deal with COVID-19. And that was before downtown Lebanon got blown up.
As a result of the increasing pressures and growing public demand for governmental change, basically the entire government of Lebanon has resigned. By the Monday following the blast, four cabinet ministers and nine members of parliament had submitted their resignations, essentially causing the government to collapse. Shortly after, the Prime Minister did the same. According to Vox, until a new government can be formed, the country will be led by “caretaker government,” which will not have the power to propose laws or executive measures. When the new government is decided, Lebanon will have to find its third political leader in less than a year.
What needs to be done
This “caretaker government” will therefore have to take the steps necessarily to steer the country in the direction of post-blast recovery, and also lay the groundwork for the new government to follow. Not only will the new leaders need to try to save the spiralling economy, but they’ll also have to gain the long-eroded trust of the Lebanese people.
Alex Ward, writing for Vox, points out that “Lebanon’s recovery has both a humanitarian and a political aspect. Without addressing both, the country will fail to bounce back from the blast”.
On a humanitarian level, the impending food crisis needs to be addressed: The explosion took out a month’s worth of grain stores, and destroyed the port through which 80% of Lebanon’s food imports were received. This means that food prices, which were already high, will continue to climb in the coming weeks. In addition, hospitals are struggling to support the influx of patients, and with all the hardships they’ve been having to face, the people of Lebanon will need increased mental health support.
On the political side, there’s been a call for international experts to investigate the blast as the people of Lebanon have very little faith in their government to get to the truth about it. Ward also writes that there’s a need to form a committee — including some trusted Lebanese officials as well as foreign leaders — to oversee how post-blast aid money will be spent in Beirut – and be transparent about it. Alternatively, others suggest humanitarian aid be overseen by a consortium of a few government officials alongside officials from non-governmental organisations, humanitarian foundations, and a few credible international aid agencies.
Whether the Lebanese government would actually be willing to cede some of its power over the situation to international bodies remains to be seen.
Lebanon as a whole is going through an exceptionally difficult time, and though there will always be new stories stealing headlines and our attention, it’s important not to forget the ongoing struggles of people all over the world. 2020 is a difficult time, and it’s really testing our patience and compassion. We often feel inclined to complain about how our year isn’t going according to plan, as we lie on the sofa, eating snacks and binging Netflix.
The Beirut explosion can serve as a reminder that no matter how fed up we are of the pandemic, things can always be –and very suddenly become – a lot more dire. There’s a lot to be grateful for if you’re one of the millions who only had to watch the blast on the screen of your iPhone.