Lebanon: Massive explosion in Beirut kills 100 and counting

beirut
The crater at Beirut port this morning where the explosion took place( Twitter)

Around 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate exploded after a fire in the port area of Beirut just after 15:00 GMT on Tuesday. Currently, the death toll as reported by Red Cross Lebanon is at 100, with more than 4,000 injuries and more deaths being expected as the rubble and debris is cleared, as around 100 people have been reported as being missing. The blast was felt and heard as far as Cyprus which is 200 km away across the Mediterannean and it also triggered a 3.5 magnitude earthquake

The two most common uses of ammonium nitrate are as fertilisers and explosives and since it is highly explosive when it comes into contact with fire, there are strict rules on how to store it safely. President Michel Aoun declared a three-day mourning period, and said the government would release 100 billion lira of emergency funds, and the Supreme Defence Council recommended declaring a 2-week state of emergency and handing over security responsibility to military authorities and forming a committee to investigate the blast and present its findings within five days to mete out the maximum punishment to those responsible. 

The Beirut port is locally known as the “Cave of Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves” for the vast amount of state funds that have reportedly been stolen there over the decades due to widespread bribery and schemes to undervalue imports. In fact, letters and documents between customs officials and the Urgent Matters judge show that the authorities were well aware of the dangers posed by the storage of the ammonium nitrate in the port ever since it was offloaded from a ship headed to Mozambique in 2013, but they were neglected. While the exact cause of the explosion is not clear, many Lebanese pointed out the root causes: immense mismanagement in a broken state run by a corrupt political class who they say treat the country’s inhabitants with contempt.

 

Lebanon was already dealing with multiple crises, with hospitals already at full capacity and rapidly rising numbers of those infected with Covid-19. Large numbers of the people of Lebanon also took to the streets in October last year against government corruption, austerity measures and a lack of basic infrastructure, leading to the resignation of the then Prime Minister. However little has changed, and the economic crisis in the country has only been deepening with food prices climbing by up to 80%, half of the country’s population below the poverty line, 35% of the population unemployed, and national debts worth almost 170% of its GDP. 

Besides the massive loss to life, the blast also destroyed at least 3 Beirut hospitals and damaged 2 hospitals, leading to an additional stress on an already overwhelmed healthcare system. The blast also destroyed wheat stored in the port’s granaries leading to fears of an impending food crisis in a country already facing shortages, especially as Lebanon imports 90% of its wheat through the port which has been destroyed, which was then likely holding 85% of the country’s cereals. 

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