Beirut Explosion: How bleak is Lebanon's future as city is destroyed, and economy plummets?

Beirut Explosion: How bleak is Lebanon's future as city is destroyed, and economy plummets?
As Lebanon reels from one of its worst tragedies in recent times, experts are concerned about what the explosion could mean for the future.
5 min read
06 August, 2020
Volunteers are working on cleaning the streets of Beirut [Getty]
The explosion of 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate in Beirut has destroyed half of the city, caused the deaths of at least 170 people, injured over 6,000 and rendered some 300,000 people homeless.

But it's not just a statistically significant wound: In what is being called one of the worst tragedies in the country's recent history, the explosion in a warehouse at Beirut Port has deepened Lebanon's political and economic crisis.

The death toll in the tiny city is likely to climb higher as search and rescue teams continue efforts to locate dozens of missing people, and grassroots aid teams are working above and beyond to combat immediate issues of injuries and homelessness.

However, the detrimental impact of such a seismic event reaches into the country's future, and consequences to the economy, the city's physical and cultural infrastructure will likely last not months, but years.

Lebanon's food supply could be one of the most pressing problems in the coming weeks; with billions of dollars' worth of infrastructural damage to the city, and with the country on the edge of economic collapse, another concern relates to who will pay for repairs. Another concern relates to the huge amount of homeless people in need of social support.

And, as exhausted as Lebanese people are protesting a corrupt political elite – frustrations offset by poverty and a raising of taxes last year – they demand accountability for the explosion.

Lebanon's premier Hassan Diab stepped down on Monday amid fury within and outside his government over the deadly Beirut port blast he blamed on the incompetence and corruption of a decades-old ruling class.

"Today we are heeding the people and their demands to hold accountable those responsible for a disaster," he said in a brief televised address, blaming a "corrupt" political class that has ruled Lebanon for more than 30 years for the August 4 explosion.

"This is why today I announce the resignation of the government."

However, this move is not an admission of responsibility, and Lebanese people have been taking to the streets for the double duty of protesting, and rebuilding the country - as its ruling elite remain absent.

Here are a number of challenges Lebanon is likely to face in both the immediate future, and further down the line:

1. Import and export issues

Beirut Port, which has been destroyed, provided Lebanon with one of its main source of import and export locations.

And with import goods and services making up 39.61 per cent of the country’s, Lebanon is likely to face serious challenges in this area.

The port in Beirut provides approximately 80 per cent of the country’s imported goods. Its destruction will have a hard impact on an already struggling economy.

The Minister of Public Works Michel Najjar has said the country will now use the northern city of Tripoli as Lebanon’s main shipping port.

However, it is currently operating at less than half of its total capacity and experts say this port is not equipped to handle the demand.

2. Food shortages

More pressing still, the destruction of wheat silos – which make up some 85 per cent of the country’s grains – could prove to be a pressing problem in a country already suffering inflation of food prices and food shortages.

The silos were reportedly nearly empty during the blast, but Reuters, quoting the economy minister, Raoul Nehme said the nation has less than a month’s reserves of the grain but still with enough flour to avoid a crisis.

According to Triangle Consulting in Beirut, the port provides 65-85 per cent of food needs for the country.

3. Shortages of medical and building material

The coronavirus pandemic stretched the country’s already meagre medical supplies to the limit, and the explosion is likely to stretch it yet further.

The country’s financial crisis has restricted the ability of medical supply importers to import vital medical supplies, including masks, gloves, and other protective gear, as well as ventilators and spare parts.

Worse still, the vast majority of medical supplies are imported. The destruction of the port means it will be challenging to bring such supplies in.

Rebuilding the hundreds of thousands of homes, as well as public buildings will be difficult, as wood and glass – vital building components – are both imported materials.

4. Infrastructure damage and loss of businesses

Hundreds of thousands of homes have been either completely destroyed or suffered extensive damage to its structures.

Hospitals have been destroyed, as have scores of businesses in the city.

The explosion occurred in one of the most culturally significant areas of Lebanon. Monasteries, archaeological sites part of the country’s historical tapestry have been irreparably destroyed.

Much of the city’s arts venues were damaged, some beyond repair; the Sursock Museum, only recently renovated, was hit, with experts saying there was no way to rebuild it.

Galleries which hosted some of Lebanon’s most renowned artists, including Sfeir Semler Gallery in the Karantina district north of the port, Marfa’ Gallery and Galerie Tanit suffered extensive damage.

The famous bar district, the heart of Beirut’s leisure, was located behind the port and was destroyed.

5. Loss of key workers

A firefighter died after she and a team of ten others were first to respond to the initial warehouse fire.

Twenty-five year old Sahar Faris died after being called to tackle the blaze. Nine of her colleagues, all of whom had responded to the fire, are still missing.

Jo Noon, Methal Hawwa and Najib Hitti were part of a 10-person rapid response team.

With an estimated population of just two million, any loss of key worker life will be a huge blow to the country.

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