Death toll rises to 137 in Beirut explosion

The country's government has ordered the storage of the 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate under house arrest
An injured man sits next to a restaurant in the partially destroyed Mar Mikhael neighbourhood in Beirut

AP/HASSAN AMMAR  -   An injured man sits next to a restaurant in the partially destroyed Mar Mikhael neighbourhood in Beirut

The threat of instability and uncertainty looms over Lebanon. The number of deaths following the explosion in the Lebanese capital Beirut on Tuesday has risen to 137, while the number of wounded exceeds 5,000.  Health Minister Hamad Hassan fears an increase in coronavirus infections over the next ten days due to a lack of protective equipment. He said in an interview with Voice of Lebanon radio that the most important thing now is to "set up field hospitals in different areas of the capital. 

In his interview with this media - which has been picked up by the Lebanese news agency - the head of the Health portfolio has reported that he is in direct contact with some Arab and European countries to ensure the arrival of medical aid to his country, while rescue work continues to find the more than 100 missing people. 

The nation's government - which is in official mourning - has ordered the storage of the 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate that, according to initial investigations, caused last Tuesday's explosion to be placed under house arrest. This announcement comes after the Executive decreed a state of emergency for at least fifteen days in the capital, which will place Beirut under military control. The Information Minister warned that this state of emergency may be "renewable and the most important military authority will be immediately responsible for maintaining security".

AFP PHOTO /UGC/ GABY SALEM/ESN - Footage from an office building as a massive explosion hit Beirut
AFP PHOTO /UGC/ GABY SALEM/ESN - Footage from an office building as a massive explosion hit Beirut 

The extraordinary Council of Ministers on Wednesday also decided to provide assistance to all those individuals and families who have lost their homes as a result of this disaster. This explosion has come at a critical time for Lebanon, which is experiencing its worst economic crisis since the end of the civil war, which took place between 1975 and 1990. This storm has been compounded by the crisis resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, which has so far left 5,417 confirmed cases and at least 68 deaths in the country.

The President of France, Emmanuel Macron, took off this morning from the south-east of France towards Beirut to visit the port where these explosions took place. Among the dead in this massacre is a French citizen, according to the French authorities, who have also recorded 24 injured among their nationals. This explosion has left more than a hundred injured among UN personnel and their families, according to this institution. 

PHOTO/REUTERS - A combined image shows a view of the port of Beirut, Lebanon, on 22 August 2019 and after an explosion on 5 August 2020
PHOTO/REUTERS - A combined image shows a view of the port of Beirut, Lebanon, on 22 August 2019 and after an explosion on 5 August 2020

In this scenario, the UN Children's Fund has shown concern about the impact this tragedy may have on children's well-being. "UNICEF is concerned that children are among the victims and we are aware that those who survived are traumatized and in a state of shock. Our hearts go out to the children and families who have been impacted, especially those who have lost loved ones. We wish the injured a speedy recovery," said the agency's representative in Lebanon, Yukie Mokuo. In response, UNICEF has decided to provide safe water to Beirut's port staff and to support the Ministry of Health "to remove what is left of the medicines and vaccines stored in a warehouse at the port. "Child protection partners are providing psychosocial support to affected children throughout the city. In the coming days, we will increase our efforts to reach families in need with much-needed assistance," she added.

What is ammonium nitrate and why was it stored in the port of Beirut?

The data is still unclear and although an investigation is underway, at the moment, the causes of this explosion are unknown. However, the main line of investigation suggests that a 2,750-tonne shipment of ammonium nitrate, a common industrial chemical used mainly as a fertiliser (because of its high nitrogen content) or for bomb making, was the cause of the Beirut explosion. 

Rescue teams continue to work around the clock as authorities continue to try to find answers and understand what may have caused the massive explosion, which has killed 137 people.  Unknowns have begun to emerge, all of which relate to what was making such a large amount of ammonium nitrate in Beirut's port warehouses, as well as the origin of this product or the time it had been in the port facilities.  According to the Stable Seas organisation, the only way to answer these questions is to carry out a series of investigations into port management practices in the port of Beirut. 

PHOTO/REUTERS - An overview shows the damage at the site of Tuesday's explosion in the port area of Beirut, Lebanon 5 August 2020
PHOTO/REUTERS - An overview shows the damage at the site of Tuesday's explosion in the port area of Beirut, Lebanon 5 August 2020

The Colorado-based organization, which coordinates a cooperation program aimed at combating illegal activities at sea, has indicated that the story of this explosion began years ago, specifically in 2013.  The organization believes that the neglect of institutions, as well as the various measures implemented by border control led to a long legal battle. The 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate detonated on Tuesday originated from the ship Rhosus, which arrived in the port of Beirut on 23 September 2013 after suffering technical difficulties. The ship, which was sailing under a Moldovan flag, was en route from Georgia to Mozambique, according to its official website. After a series of incidents, it was inspected by port technicians who allegedly found deficiencies and banned it from resuming operations. 

The foundation believes that "inadequate" procedures for dealing with such ships and their crews have been partly responsible for many materials such as ammonium nitrate being left behind in the Beirut warehouses. Stable Seas recalled that most of the people on board the Rhosus were repatriated, except the captain and three other crew members. After a series of legal clashes, these four people were able to leave the ship and the port authority was left with responsibility for the highly explosive content on board the ship, according to this institution.  "Sometime between July 2014 and October 2015, the ammonium nitrate was moved to a warehouse where it apparently remained until the catastrophic explosion," they said. ​​​​​​​

After analysing this case, the Stable Seas organisation has stressed that the consequences of abandoning boats are rarely as visible and shocking as they were in Beirut, although they have warned that this problem is quite common. "Today, abandoned ships and crews represent various types of threats worldwide," they warned, arguing that while the eyes of the entire international community are currently on Beirut, a similar disaster is looming in Yemen, in connection with the FSO Safer. This tanker -- a ship that has been moored 7 kilometers off the country's coast since 1988 and abandoned in the Red Sea -- could spill more than a million barrels of crude oil, causing an unprecedented humanitarian disaster and hampering maritime traffic across the Red Sea, the Bab el-Mandeb Strait and the Suez Canal.

Ammonium nitrate is a highly dangerous product, but its benefits as an agricultural land fertilizer make it unavoidable.  This situation led several countries to establish rules on how to store and market it. A former British intelligence officer, Philip Ingram, has told the BBC that this chemical can only become an explosive in certain circumstances. Furthermore, he has pointed out that the safe storage of this material reduces its danger, although in small spaces or contaminated with elements such as fuel, it can cause a great catastrophe. 

In this sense, Sea Safer has stated that, although there are few ships that threaten such serious natural disasters, there are hundreds of sailors who are directly affected by problems such as the abandonment of ships.  This organization considers that, although these types of cases do not usually attract worldwide attention, cumulatively they represent a huge problem in the global shipping industry. The FONASBA institution estimates that 1.2 million sailors are spread over 55,000 ships every day and each of them, according to this organization, is subject to the decisions made by shipping companies, port managers and immigration authorities in port states while on board.  

PHOTO/AFP - An aerial view shows the enormous damage caused to grain silos in the port of Beirut and the surrounding area on 5 August 2020, one day after a mega-explosion struck the port in the heart of the Lebanese capital
PHOTO/AFP - An aerial view shows the enormous damage caused to grain silos in the port of Beirut and the surrounding area on 5 August 2020, one day after a mega-explosion struck the port in the heart of the Lebanese capital 

Sea Safer has pointed out that this problem has been exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic. "The sudden economic crisis has caused shipping companies to abandon their ships and most countries have enacted strict border controls that prevent foreign seafarers from disembarking in ports," they said, before explaining that as a result of these measures, tens of thousands of people have been trapped at sea. However, they have noted that some international organizations have begun to report on ad hoc solutions to address some of these specific cases. The Colorado-based institution hopes that the Beirut tragedy will serve to improve port storage practices as well as safety protocols related to the presence of dangerous maritime cargo.