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Lebanon: A Year Since One of the Largest Non-Nuclear Blast

August 4, 2021, marked the first tragic anniversary of the devastating non-nuclear explosion in Lebanon’s capital, Beirut.

The difficulties that ensued from this incident only worsened the grim situation in Lebanon as it saw a great economic decline and has left a harsh impact both on the country and its citizens. It has also been without a fully functioning government for nearly a year now.

A clash between protestors and the police

Thousands of Lebanese people, including families of victims united in their grief and suffering converged at Central Beirut to take a stand against the government on the gloomy anniversary. The Lebanese police scuffled with angry protesters near the Parliament demanding accountability for last year’s Beirut port explosion.

The Riot police responded by firing tear gas and rubber bullets at the protestors throwing stones. They also started using water cannons and beating the demonstrators with batons. Due to this, The Red Cross dispatched 21 ambulances and 100 paramedics, said it brought eight people to the hospital, and had treated dozens more on-site.

Relatives of the victims of Beirut Port blast gather in front of the house of Lebanon’s interior minister, Mohammad Fahmi during a protest demanding the fair conduct of the investigation. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Thousands gathered at the port where the explosion happened to mark the first anniversary of the explosion, which killed at least 214 people and injured thousands.

With prayers and protests planned for later in the day, the banks, businesses, and government offices were shuttered on the day as the country marked it a national day of mourning.

Survivors and relatives of blast victims remembered the ones they lost in the horrific incident last year by carrying flags and portraits of the dead. There were no reports of violence as prayers and mournful tunes rang out amidst a mix of grief and anger.

Relatives of firemen killed in Beirut port blast hold their portraits during a remembrance ceremony at the port of Lebanon’s capital on August 4, 2021, on the first anniversary of the blast that ravaged the port and the city. Photograph:( AFP )

What Happened on August 4, 2020?

On August 4, 2020, a stock of ammonium nitrate fertilizer carelessly and haphazardly stored at the city’s port exploded,  leaving swathes of the Lebanese capital looking like a war zone. It was one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history and killed at least 214 people, injured thousands, and devastated the entire neighborhoods of the city.

This was the result of hundreds of tons of ammonium nitrate igniting after a fire broke out. The deadly explosion tore through the city with such force that it caused a tremor across the entire country. It was heard and felt as far away as the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, more than 200 kilometers (180 miles) away.

 

Eventually, it emerged in documents that the highly combustible nitrates were haphazardly stored at a port warehouse alongside other flammable material since 2014 and that multiple high-level officials across the years knew of its presence and did nothing.

 

A Year Later…

No senior officer has been held accountable for their negligence that led the country to immense pain and suffering.

The investigation is yet to reveal who ordered the shipment and why the officials ignore repeated internal warnings of the dangerous chemicals. Culprits are unidentified and political leaders are widely accused of obstructing justice.

“I mean, it’s their crime,” says Tracy Awad Naggear, who lost her three-year-old daughter, Alexandra in the blast while referring to the country’s leaders. “The ammonium nitrate was there, it was theirs. They knew that it was there. They didn’t do anything. They had months, they had years.”

She says referring to the seven years during which the ammonium nitrate which is commonly used in agricultural fertilizer and sometimes bombs — sat and stored, forgotten or neglected, in a port warehouse.

It is still not clear who ordered the shipment or why it was stored in a warehouse in the middle of Beirut’s densely populated city center.

 

People pass next of a justice symbol monument that sits in front of towering grain silos gutted in the massive August 2020 explosion at the Beirut port that claimed the lives of more than 200 people, in Beirut, Lebanon, Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2021. (AP)

 

 

Economic crisis

Lebanon has been struggling to survive the several crises that have hit them, such as the economic crisis, political turmoil (since 2019), the COVID-19 pandemic, the August 2020 Beirut explosions, and instability due to which more than half the population is now living below the poverty line.

According to ABC News, the World Bank said in a report that the country’s severe economic and financial crisis is likely to rank as one of the worst the world has seen in more than 150 years.

Even before the explosion in 2020, the Lebanese economy was facing a steep contraction as Lebanon’s GDP per capita fell by 40% in dollar terms between 2018 and 2020. Meanwhile, the real GDP contracted by 20.3% in 2020. According to the World Bank, this has been pulling the Mediterranean country into “one of the most severe global crises episodes”.

 

Crisis-hit lebanon

The country is already facing a critically short supply of bread and fuel. Followed by the decision of the Central Bank to end subsidies for fuel products in Lebanon, the Lebanese people flocked to bakeries to find themselves some affordable bread.

Many bakeries have already started closing down as they are unable to afford the rising cost of fuel needed to power private generators. It is even more difficult because the electricity cuts last for about 20 hours a day.

People stand in line for bread outside a bakery in Beirut in June 2020.
(Hassan Ammar / Associated Press)

Businesses are barely staying afloat as 78% of the country’s population of more than six million people live below the poverty line and food prices have increased as high as 400%. People have to stand in long queues that start as early as 3 AM just as the bakery starts baking for the day.

“Once we’ve paid rent, we have no money left,” said Mohammad Abdul Qader, a pastry shop employee who needs to provide for five children. He added food has become so expensive, he can no longer afford meat, “I gaze at the butcher’s from a distance, and then go on my way.”

The Central Bank’s announcement has sent the country into an inflationary shock. With poverty levels soaring high, medicines and electricity supplies are running out at the pharmacies.

“This is obviously going to ripple through the whole economy,” Heiko Wimmen- Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon’s director at Crisis Group, told CNN. “For a large part of the population, electricity will become a luxury. Driving your car will become a luxury, too. Transportation will become a luxury.”

Lebanese wait to fill their gas cylinders after dealers warned it could soon join the list of scarce goods, prompting a country-wide panic Mahmoud ZAYYAT AFP

Inflation Skyrockets

The ripple effects of this decision could be seen even before the announcements.

Petrol stations across Lebanon shuttered, highways became jammed by long lines that snaked out of the few petrol pumps that remained open, and factories, including one that supplies the majority of the country’s intravenous lines to hospitals, closed and all blamed diesel exhaustion.

Several towns and neighborhoods in the country plunged into darkness because of the lack of diesel needed to power backup generators. Many businesses considered closing shops (or have closed already) due to the massive power cuts.

According to Al Jazeera, Tensions over scarce fuel supplies in the country descended into deadly violence involving guns, knives, and a hand grenade, leaving three men dead, Lebanon’’s National News Agency reported.

Citizens blame the severe fuel shortage on smuggling, hoarding, and the cash-strapped government’s inability to secure deliveries of imported fuel.

 

Lining up for necessities: , motorists wait at a fuel station in Beirut. Lebanese people will sometimes queue for gas with no guarantee that there will be any left when their turn comes.

These effects of the Central Bank’s decision are only expected to worsen and become more cross-cutting and have dire consequences.

Shortage of Food, Water and electricity

It may cause disruptions to the supply of even more necessities, such as the most basic need – bottled water (the country does not have potable water). “Drinking water is all about transportation. If you don’t have diesel, you can’t get water from the mountain to the coast,” said Wimmen.

The UN has also warned of upcoming disasters. The water system is on a brink of collapse across the country in the next few weeks. Expectedly, over 71% of the country’s population will lose access to safe water.

There is also an imminent threat to food safety in households, restaurants, and supermarkets across Lebanon due to a lack of refrigeration.

A Lebanese barber shaves the beard of a customer at the door of his shop during a power outage in a southern suburb of Beirut, Lebanon, Wednesday, Aug. 11, 2021. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

A member of the Parliament also warned of internet outages earlier this week and gas importers of impending shortages in the product. It gave rise to lines outside stores selling cooking gas.

Shortage of power is threatening a catastrophe. A top medical center and one of Lebanon’s oldest and most prestigious university hospitals warned on August 14, 2021, that it may be forced to shut down in less than 48 hours due to fuel shortages. It would threaten the lives of its critically ill patients.

Due to this, the American University of Beirut Medical Center said 55 patients dependent on respirators, including 15 children, and more than 100 people with renal failure who are on dialysis would be immediately threatened.

 

Emergency Aid for lebanon

French President Emmanuel Macron intended to raise at least USD 350 million (INR 25,97,59,50,000) in emergency aid for the battered Lebanese population from the participants in the conference.

They included US President Joe Biden, Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, Lebanon’s own President Michel Aoun, and the International Monetary Fund. However, in the end, the new pledges total came up to around USD 370 million (27,46,02,90,000), the French President’s office said.

France’s President Emmanuel Macron attends an international video conference at the Fort de Bregancon, in Bormes-Les-Mimosas, southern France, Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2021. – Copyright Christophe Simon/Pool via AP

“I think that Lebanese leaders… owe their people the truth and transparency,” Macron told the conference led by France which coincided with the anniversary of the disaster.

US President Joe Biden promised 100 million USD (7421700000.00 INR) in additional aid for Lebanon as he pressed the crisis-wracked nation to undergo reforms,.

“Today I’m announcing nearly a $100 million in new humanitarian assistance,”he said. “But no amount of outside assistance will ever be enough if Lebanon’s leaders do not commit to do the hard but necessary work of reforming the economy and combating corruption,” he told an UN-backed donor conference for Lebanon led by France.

Going forward

Devastatingly the outlook for Lebanon is bleak. But, a few are predicting the possibility of an economic or political breakthrough before the country’s scheduled parliamentary elections for next year. According to experts, in the absence of significant political change, this decline will only continue.

 

 

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