For the people of Lebanon, it was business as usual on Tuesday, August 4, 2020. Post-Eid holidays, the desperate people—struggling to feed themselves and their loved ones—were out in search of livelihood and subsistence. As the day neared its end, little did they know that it was going to be the last for many of them.
First there was a fire, and then an earth-shaking, glass-shattering, mind-numbing explosion. Then a surreal mushroom cloud of smoke over the Beirut sky, followed by panic, chaos and commotion. The shockwave triggered by the explosion went on to damage buildings as far as 10 kilometres away, reports CNN—all thanks to the 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate dumped unsecured in Hanger 12 of the Beirut port (a few minutes' distance from the city's commercial and shopping districts) for six years!
According to the country's prime minister, Hassan Diab, the chemical had been stored in the warehouse "without preventive measures". He has promised an investigation. Beirut was declared a "disaster city" by the authorities on August 5, as the nation tried to come to terms with another tragedy. A two-week state of emergency has been declared by the country's cabinet, which has also put under house arrest all Beirut port officials who were responsible for storage and security from 2014. The military has been instructed to enforce the house arrest.
But this incident, one of the most shocking in the country's recent history, has raised an important question: why had the past governments not disposed of the chemical since it was confiscated way back in 2014? Were they unaware of the existence of the chemical? Apparently, not.
An Al Jazeera report suggests that the chemical was being shipped on a Russia-owned cargo vessel from Georgia to Mozambique in 2013, when in September of that year it had to dock at the Beirut port after encountering technical difficulties. The owner and crew of the vessel had to abandon it apparently because the Lebanese authorities did not allow it to sail. The chemical was later offloaded to Hanger 12 of the port, where it remained till the explosion ripped through the capital on August 4.
One might wonder why no one ever raised a flag. But they did, and on six different occasions, as per the Al Jazeera report. Shafik Merhi—the then-director of Lebanese Customs—on June 27, 2014 wrote a letter to an unnamed "Urgent Matters judge", informing them of the matter and seeking a solution. On December 5, 2014, May 6, 2015, May 20, 2016, October 13, 2016, and October 27, 2017, customs officials sent letters seeking guidance.
What is interesting here is that between 2013 and 2020, the country has seen four prime ministers: Najib Mikati (who left office on February 15, 2014), Tammam Salam (who left office on December 18, 2016), Saad Hariri (who left office on January 21, 2020), and the incumbent Hassan Diab, who took office on January 21, 2020. All these administrations had either failed to see the danger that lurked in Beirut Port or were too busy serving themselves to take notice of the 2,750 tonnes of explosives lying unsecured in the country's main port.
Given the history of the chemical in triggering man-made disasters on multiple occasions, there are specific regulations for the safe storage of ammonium nitrate. And letting 2,750 tonnes sit in one cramped space is certainly not one of them.
The Lebanese ruling class is perceived as a select group of elite-class individuals who exploit public resources for private gains. The economic free fall of the nation only reinforces the negative public image of the governments. The country is on the verge of bankruptcy: in March this year, it announced that it was defaulting on its debts. As of March 2020, its national debt stood at USD 92 billion taking it to a staggering 170 percent of its GDP—one of the highest such rations in the world. The official currency, Lira, has depreciated 80 percent since October 2019 and the import-dependent nation is running short of foreign currency resulting in lower volume of imports. Inflation has skyrocketed.
And then Covid-19 happened, bringing the nation to a halt and pushing millions into poverty, many of them innocent children. According to a Save the Children report published recently, more than half a million of children in Beirut alone are struggling with poverty and hunger. It added, "Lebanon is going through an economic crisis, exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. Since September last year, prices for basic items such as food and shelter have soared by 169 percent, while unemployment has risen by 35 percent in the formal sector, and up to 45 percent in the informal sector. Inflation further decreased the purchasing power of families, which plummeted by 85 percent."
Middle East Eye reported a dire warning by the acting country director of Save the Children in Lebanon, Jad Sakr, saying, "We will start seeing children dying from hunger before the end of the year."
And in the wake of the pandemic, the lack of foreign currency meant not being able to procure necessary medical supplies. This has resulted in fewer options of medical treatment for Covid-19 infected patients. According to Al Arabiya News, the American University of Beirut has recently fired 850 staff members mostly from the university's medical centre, triggering public protests. ICUs were already running short of beds for the patients, and now with this blast, Lebanon's already crumbling medical infrastructure is grappling to provide essential care to the more than 5,000 victims who were injured in the explosion, including around 100 Bangladeshi nationals, 21 of them navy personnel. At the time of writing this piece, the death toll stood at 135, which includes four Bangladeshis. Some people remain missing.
Since last year, people in Lebanon have taken to the streets in various phases—even during the outbreak of the pandemic—in protest of the failure of the government to ensure the wellbeing of the people. Hungry, without job or money, and seeing loved ones suffer, the desperate people of Lebanon are left with no other option but to seek reform of its corrupt political system.
While the explosion on August 4 was a shock, it was a long time coming. Lebanon, with its abject failure as a democracy in protecting the interests of the people, is a lesson for other democracies where the centre is becoming too detached from the people, too self-absorbed for its own good. The explosion at Beirut port has been blamed on negligence. But the question remains: whose negligence? Was it the government that failed to rectify the flaws in the administration (or perhaps even fed on it)? The judges who did not reply to letters from the port customs officials? The port officials themselves? Or the people who allowed such a corrupt system to stay in place for so many years?
While nations need to support Lebanon in coping with the losses caused by this man-made disaster, they should revisit their own democratic structures to avert similar failures in the future. No one knows where another bulk of ammonium nitrate is lying unsecured, ready to combust.
Tasneem Tayeb is a columnist for The Daily Star.
Her Twitter handle is: @TayebTasneem