Most of country’s grain reserve destroyed, hundreds of thousands said to be displaced
Lebanon, already teetering on the brink of economic collapse and one of the Middle Eastern countries most devastated by the coronavirus pandemic, has now been hit by a huge explosion that has changed the look of its capital city.
Two massive blasts ripped through Beirut Port just after 6 pm on Tuesday, killing at least 135 people and wounding thousands more. The enormous explosions were heard 150 miles away in Cyprus. According to seismologists, they registered as the equivalent of a 3.3-magnitude earthquake.
The death toll is expected to rise as search efforts continue.
Officials say the blasts were ignited by a fire in a warehouse containing explosive material.
Prime Minister Hassan Diab called it “a disaster in every sense of the word,” saying 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate – a substance used in fertilizers and bombs – that had been stored for years in a portside warehouse had blown up.
“What happened… will not pass without accountability,” he added. “Those responsible for this catastrophe will pay the price.”
What happened… will not pass without accountability
The Lebanese government on Wednesday ordered Beirut Port officials placed under house arrest.
General Security chief Abbas Ibrahim said the explosive material had been confiscated years earlier and stored in the warehouse, just minutes from Beirut’s shopping and nightlife districts.
The few hours that followed the explosion were marred by confusion and contradictory statements from Lebanese officials.
The governor of Beirut, Marwan Abboud, described the situation as “apocalyptic.” At least 300,000 people had been displaced by the disaster and it would cost the country more than $3 billion, he said.
President Michel Aoun declared three days of mourning and announced he would release 100 billion Lebanese pounds ($66 million) in emergency funds.
The devastation reached Beirut airport’s terminal, six miles from the blast site.
Jassem Ajaka, a former advisor to the Lebanese Finance Ministry, told The Media Line that the damage would have a devastating effect on the country’s economy.
“Eighty percent of the port was destroyed,” he said. “This means it has become unusable, and thus import and export movements will stop [there].”
Lebanon has three other ports – in Tripoli, Tyre and Sidon – but Ajaka says they are not equipped to receive a large number of commercial ships.
“This will lead to huge losses for the state’s income, and also losses at the level of exports, because costs will rise,” he said.
The port housed wheat silos that were destroyed in the explosions.
“We have enough grain reserves for less than a month and we are looking for additional storage space,” Lebanese Economy Minister Raoul Nehme said on Wednesday.
We have enough grain reserves for less than a month and we are looking for additional storage space
This means that widespread hunger could become a major concern in a country that depends on food imports, and Ajaka believes the next steps will be critical, as the port’s silos were classified as strategic stocks.
“There are now about 30,000 tons available on the market and it is estimated that they may last only a month,” he noted. “This means that Lebanon no longer has food security because there is no strategic stockpile. If one shipment is delayed, the country will be without food.”
The country has been under great pressure in recent months, and not only because of the coronavirus pandemic. It is crippled by debt and political paralysis. Its economy is in shambles, and since late last year, thousands of people have been in the streets demanding banking and financial reforms, as well as an end to corruption.
The issue of corruption is complex in Lebanon. It has sectarian and political dimensions, and Ajaka says that “unfortunately,” the government has found fighting it an “impossible” task.
“Corruption is greater than the state and its institutions, and it is not easy to hold corrupt people accountable,” he stated.
Corruption is greater than the state and its institutions, and it is not easy to hold corrupt people accountable
“The issue of corruption will turn into an internal political conflict rather than [a fight against] corruption,” he continued. “Even if the president of the republic has the intention to pursue those who are corrupt, he will collide with many people who will prevent him from moving forward.”
The economic crisis has left more than half of the population in poverty. The local currency, the Lebanese pound, has plunged in value over the past year, and many businesses have closed their doors as inflation and unemployment skyrocketed.
The government has been unable to come up with a sound financial plan that includes serious reforms, a prerequisite to receiving funding from the International Monetary Fund, which already forecasts a GDP decline of 12% in 2020.
The prime minister appealed to Lebanon’s allies to stand by the country and “help us treat these deep wounds.”
French President Emmanuel Macron will travel to Lebanon on Thursday, becoming the first world leader to visit Beirut after the deadly blasts.
“France is at the side of Lebanon. Always,” he tweeted in Arabic.