On 4th August shortly after 18:00 local time, the roof of a warehouse in the port Lebanon’s capital, Beirut, caught alight. This was followed by the first large explosion and many minor explosions that locals compared to fireworks. Only 30 seconds later the second explosion sent a supersonic blastwave radiating out. This explosion could be heard as far away as Cyprus, 200 kilometres across the Mediterranean Sea.
The blast created a crater 140 metres wide at the dockside which flooded and flattened houses in an approximate 2-kilometre radius, which homed 2 million people. St George Hospital is within the immediate impact zone and with the country already suffering from the COVID-19 pandemic, hospitals were quickly overwhelmed.
What caused the explosion?
Lebanon’s Prime Minister, Hassan Diab, has put the cause of the explosion down to 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate being unsafely stored in a warehouse at the port since it was seized from a ship in 2013. Leaving the chemical stored for 7 years meant it could absorb moisture and essentially become a huge rock. Ammonium nitrate can be used harmlessly as agriculture fertiliser but when combined with fuel oils it creates a powerful explosion. The ignition of the chemical is supposedly from welding work that was being carried out on the warehouse it was stored in.
Who has been affected?
The death toll is currently at more than 200 with 5,000 injured but these figures are expected to rise as debris is cleared and hospitals work at capacity. Eight firefighters and five nurses are among the deceased.
What has happened since the explosion?
The Lebanese Government has declared a two-week state of emergency and handed over security of the capital to the army. An investigation has been ordered by President Michel Aoun and over 30 participants to an international conference are carrying out a ‘credible and independent’ investigation as demanded by protestors. The port officials have been placed under house arrest pending the completion of this investigation. It has also come to light through letters that the correct procedures were not followed and guidance was not given for the storage of the chemical between 2014 and 2017.
Food and water distribution points have been set up as well as people handing out clothes and supplies to the homeless and injured. Animal’s Lebanon are working to reunite lost pets with their owners and care for those injured.
The World Health Organisation have said they will airlift medical supplies to cover 1,000 trauma interventions and up to 1,000 surgical interventions. Many world leaders and international organisations have also pledged money, totalling nearly $300 million, in emergency humanitarian aid but disclosed that no money will be available to rebuild the capital until the Lebanese authorities commit themselves to the political and economic reforms demanded by their residents in last weekend’s protests.
Lebanon currently scores 13/100 on Transparency International’s rankings of corruption standards, ranking 178/198, and putting them in the top 20 of the most corrupt countries in the world. Meanwhile, it has the third highest public debt to GDP ratio in the world, and a third of the population live below the poverty line. Lebanon suffers frequent power cuts, while protests over poor public services have been common over the years, and it appears the pandemic and the blast have proved the tipping point.