Explainer: Can the Beirut explosion offer lessons for the Middle East?

by Ban Barkawi | @banbarkawi | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 7 August 2020 15:32 GMT

A general view shows the damage at the site of Tuesday's blast in Beirut's port area, Lebanon August 5, 2020. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir

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What could the explosion mean for the city and others in the region?

By Ban Barkawi

AMMAN, Aug 7 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The deadly explosion that tore through Lebanon's capital on Tuesday has raised questions about the safety of residents of Middle Eastern cities where poor governance, economic turmoil and conflict can lead to disaster.

Ammonium nitrate - a chemical often used in fertilisers - stored unsafely in Beirut's port caused the blast and residents have blamed the government over what they say was negligence and expressed concern about their safety as city-dwellers.

What could the explosion mean for the city and others in the region?

What happened?

The blast was caused by 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate confiscated from a ship and stored in a hangar since 2014 without proper safety measures.

The explosion destroyed homes and killed at least 137 people and was heard as far as 180km away on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus.

It was the most powerful explosion ever suffered by Beirut, a city still scarred by civil war three decades ago and reeling from a financial crisis rooted in corruption and economic mismanagement.

Initial investigations indicate years of inaction and negligence over the storage of the highly explosive materials.

Letters were sent to the judiciary by the head of Beirut port and the head of customs requesting for the dangerous material be removed, but no action was taken.

Where else in the Middle East have facilities in cities exploded?

An airstrike on a missile base set off a huge explosion in Yemen in 2015, flattening homes in the capital Sanaa close to the site and shaking buildings as far away as the outskirts of the city.

Yemen suffered a another blast year when a warehouse caught fire and exploded near homes and schools in Sanaa, killing 15 children and wounding dozens more.

In Iran, a large blaze broke out at a shipyard in the southern Iranian port city of Bushehr in July. It followed dozens of recent fires and explosions across Iran’s forests, factories and military and nuclear facilities in the past three months.

The Middle East is by no means the only region to suffer explosions of this magnitude. 

Globally, some of the deadliest industrial accidents were caused by ammonium nitrate explosions including a blast at an ammonium nitrate depot in Toulouse, France in 2001.

What can make cities vulnerable to explosive disasters?

Economic turmoil, conflict, and negligence by authorities can lead to disasters like the ones in Lebanon and Yemen, experts say.

Some of the main causes of dangerous incidents at munitions sites include improper storage, poor security and failure to consider external environmental influences, according to data from the Small Arms Survey.

There is no solid data to show that in hot environments, like the Middle East, exacerbated by climate change, explosions are more likely, but some researchers have cited it as a concern.

What are the safety measures for storing explosive materials?

Ammonium nitrate is a chemical commonly used in fertilisers and as an explosive for quarrying and mining. It has also been used in bombs.

Warehouses storing it must have proper ventilation in case of fire and containers must not exceed 130F (about 54C), according to U.S. government regulations.

Buildings should be constructed from materials that will not burn, such as concrete, bricks or steel, according to U.K. guidelines.

In cases were storage is near densely populated areas it may be safer to store ammonium nitrate outside in a secure area as long as it's far away from flammable materials, gas pipelines and heat.

Has the Beirut blast led to action in other countries?

In the aftermath of Beirut's explosion, citizens globally have called on their governments to inspect their warehouses and ports containing combustible materials.

Iraq's border authority said on Wednesday it would inspect containers at ports and borders for potentially explosive chemicals, according to local media.

What is the long-term impact of an explosion like this on a city and residents?

Up to 250,000 people have been made homeless in Beirut, according to its governor.

With the local currency losing up to 80% of its value in less than a year, the government has placed limits on bank transactions, leaving many to wonder how they will pay for home repairs and how long the process will take.

The majority of Lebanon's economic activity happens inside Beirut but people may  seek refuge in accommodation outside the city until their homes are rebuilt.

Some, exhausted by catastrophes, have said they wish to leave the country for better opportunities.

Lebanon's main grain silo was destroyed, leaving the nation with less than a month's reserves of the grain although there is still enough flour to avoid a crisis.

With the port destroyed, the import-dependent country will need to find an alternatives to protect itself against increased food shortages and rising costs.

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(Reporting by Ban Barkawi @banbarkawi; Editing by Tom Finn. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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