The apocalyptic explosions that damaged half of Beirut on Tuesday would be devastating in any country. But in fragile Lebanon, a country already mired in crisis, the impact could push the country to the edge of disaster, experts warn.
Lebanon, a country of about 7 million people, has already been in the grip of a massive economic and political crisis, fueled by a nosediving currency and the impacts of a worsening coronavirus outbreak, that has prompted regular fiery protests on the streets of Beirut and other cities.
Tuesday’s disaster, apparently caused at its root by the same corruption and inept governance as caused the economic crisis, will only deepen the suffering of the Lebanese people, and fuel their anger at the ruling class, says British-Lebanese analyst Lina Khatib.
“If Lebanon was teetering on the brink of collapse before this explosion, now it’s going to be rushing towards collapse,” Khatib, director of the Middle East and North Africa program at the Chatham House think tank, told VICE News. “The explosion is going to amplify all the problems that Lebanon had been facing – the economic devastation, political tension, and growing popular anger against the government.”
Khatib said there was no way the Lebanese state, which was “essentially bankrupt,” would be able to recover on its own from the devastation of the blast, the cost of which Beirut governor Marwan Abboud estimated at between $3 billion and 5 billion. At least 100 people were killed, 4,000 injured and 300,000 displaced by the explosions.
“Lebanon will not be able to get through this crisis on its own. It desperately needs foreign assistance,” said Khatib. “Without help, Lebanon is going to become a failed state.”
Lebanon’s leaders say the blasts were caused by a warehouse storing 2,750 tons of unsecured ammonium nitrate, a highly explosive chemical used in fertilisers and bombs. While they have condemned the failure to safeguard the dangerous stockpile as unacceptable, and promised harsh consequences for those found responsible, Khatib said it was the rampant corruption of the Lebanese political system that had contributed to the disaster in the first place.
“The fact that the government turned a blind eye to a massive stockpile of ammonium nitrate unsafely stored in an area close to residential neighbourhoods is simply not acceptable by any standards, and this speaks to the corruption rampant in Lebanon,” she said. “Had there been proper state oversight the port would not become a space that facilitates these transactions.”
Khatib added that despite the loud calls for accountability from the Lebanese public over the disaster, she doubted the political class would change its ways.
Different government departments were already trying to pass the buck over the disaster, she said, with the director of the customs office pointing the finger at the head of the port directorate in an interview with al Jazeera.
“I don’t expect in the near future there’s going to be an awakening of the political class to suddenly become accountable.”
While the political reckoning plays out, the suffering of the already struggling Lebanese people in the wake of the disaster will be immense, aid agencies and analysts warn.
Ana Melica, senior economist at IHS Markit, told VICE News said the disaster would further hurt the economy, in which real GDP was already expected to collapse by nearly a quarter this year, and deepen the country’s food crisis. Lebanon is highly dependent on imports, and an estimated 85 percent of the country’s grain supply was stored in the destroyed silos, she said.
“The immediate impact will be a surge in already high inflation and a worsening food crisis,” she said. “Severe food shortages are expected.”
Yukie Mokuo, UNICEF’s representative in Lebanon, said the catastrophe added “to what has already been a terrible crisis for the people of Lebanon compounded by an economic collapse and a surge in COVID-19 cases.”
“The pandemic already meant that hospitals are overwhelmed, and front-line workers are exhausted,” she said.
George Antoun, Mercy Corps country director for Lebanon, said the disaster came “at the worst possible time for Lebanon, and adds yet another setback that will deeply affect people's ability to cope."
“In a humanitarian sense, the needs are on par with what you might see immediately after an earthquake has struck.”
Faced with such bleak prospects, Khatib said she expected the public anger at the government, which has boiled over in regular street protests in recent months, to only deepen. On the streets of Beirut Wednesday, residents spoke of their despair at the apparent failure of the government to mount a competent response to the disaster. In neighbourhoods near the port, groups of residents banded together to clean up, while soldiers stood by watching.
“The prevailing mood in Lebanon right now is of heartbreak and sheer devastation,” said Khatib. “The mood is very somber and anger is mounting.”
Lama Al-Arian contributing from Beirut.