Lebanon: causes and scenarios of the great explosion that shook Beirut

At least a hundred people have died and another 4,000 have been injured
A Lebanese army helicopter flies over the site of Tuesday's explosion in the port area of Beirut, Lebanon, on 5 August 2020

REUTERS/ISSAM ABDALLAH  -   A Lebanese army helicopter flies over the site of Tuesday's explosion in the port area of Beirut, Lebanon, on 5 August 2020

Chaos and uncertainty in Beirut, the capital of Lebanon. At least a hundred people have been killed and 4,000 injured by a massive explosion that has rocked the country's capital. Rescue teams continue to work in search of life and answers, while fear continues to be rampant in the port of Beirut. The President of the Republic, Michel Aoun, has declared three days of mourning and announced an emergency fund worth $66 million, in a nation devastated by the economic crisis and serious political divisions. 

In this complex scenario, the international community and the citizens of the country itself have begun to wonder what is behind this atrocious event.  Minutes after this explosion occurred, information began to circulate on the Internet and social networks at the speed of light.  However, the facts are still unclear and although an investigation is underway, the causes of this explosion are not known at this time. 

Lugar de la explosión del martes en la zona portuaria de Beirut, Líbano 5 de agosto de 2020
REUTERS/MOHAMED AZAKIR - Location of Tuesday's explosion in the port area of Beirut, Lebanon 5 August 2020
Ammonium, the chemical that shook Beirut 

The president of the Lebanese nation has revealed that there was a shipment of 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate, a common industrial chemical used mainly as fertilizer (because of its high nitrogen content) or for the manufacture of bombs, which had been stored for more than six years in the port of the capital without security measures. "This is unacceptable," he stressed. The head of General Security, Abbas Ibrahim, and other members of the executive have supported this line of investigation, although they do not understand what caused the material to catch fire.  Several hours after this explosion, the fire began to spread in the port district, turning the sky orange in a city whose soundtrack was played by ambulance sirens.

AFP/AFP - Archivo de datos sobre las explosiones de Beirut
AFP/AFP - Beirut blasts data archive

All theories suggest that this explosion was the result of the explosion of a warehouse full of highly explosive materials, which had been confiscated in recent years by the country's authorities. Although many people look critically at the Hezbollah militia party, there has been no confirmation, for the moment, that it is linked to the material stored in the port of Beirut, which is responsible for this disaster.  "The Lebanese State Security Agency has requested an investigation into the explosive materials found in block 12 of the port of Beirut," a spokesman for the Supreme Defence Council said, in statements collected by Al Ain. Moeen Hamzah, the secretary-general of the National Council for Scientific Research, explained that "the smoke from the burning of ammonium nitrate would seriously pollute the air and affect public health, especially those suffering from respiratory or asthmatic difficulties". 

The mixture between ammonia and fire is highly dangerous, as it can facilitate the spread of toxic gases such as ammonia when it explodes. According to the BBC, there has been an additional explosive hazard in this situation, due to the presence of drains and pipes where nitrate has accumulated.  The great explosion has reopened the unhealed wounds of a civil war (1975-1990) that left the nation in a great crisis. The memory of the Israeli bombings or air strikes has reappeared in the wake of this disaster. The networks were filled with comments full of uncertainty, while some thought it was an earthquake, others thought it was an attack. "The explosion left me meters away. I was dazed and all covered in blood. It brought back the vision of another explosion I witnessed against the US embassy in 1983," Huda Baroudi, a designer from Beirut told Reuters news agency. 

AFP/ANWAR AMOR - Las secuelas de la explosión de ayer se ven en el puerto de la capital del Líbano, Beirut, el 5 de agosto de 2020
AFP/ANWAR AMOR - The aftermath of yesterday's explosion can be seen in the port of Lebanon's capital, Beirut, on 5 August 2020
Trump says it is "a bomb attack of some kind"

For his part, U.S. President Donald Trump considers this explosion attributed to a shipment of ammonium nitrate to be "an attack with some kind of bomb".  He said this at a press conference in which he referred to Tuesday's explosion in the port of Beirut. "I have met with some of our great generals and they seem to feel that it was (an attack). This was not an event like an industrial explosion," continued the American president.  "This seems to be, according to them (the generals), they will know better than I do, but they seem to think it was an attack, it was some kind of bomb," he added. Those responsible for investigating this incident have said that so far the information is closer to what the Lebanese authorities have said. 

AP/BILAL HUSSEIN - Esta foto muestra una vista general de la escena de una explosión que golpeó el puerto marítimo de Beirut, Líbano, el miércoles 5 de agosto de 2020
AP/BILAL HUSSEIN - This photo shows an overview of the scene of an explosion that hit the seaport of Beirut, Lebanon, on Wednesday, August 5, 2020

The scenario remains apocalyptic in the Lebanese capital. Rescue teams continue to search for missing persons among the burnt-out containers and cars. Minutes after this explosion occurred, some eyes turned to Israel, a country that has no diplomatic relations with Lebanon. However, government sources assured that Israel had nothing to do with these explosions. Moreover, this country joined the list of nations that offered humanitarian aid to this state after the explosion. The head of Israel's defence ministry said on Tuesday that his country had communicated with Lebanon through "international security and diplomatic channels". In addition, the nation led by Reuvén Rivlin offered humanitarian aid and immediate assistance to the neighboring country. This came several hours after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned Hezbollah that it would do "everything necessary to defend itself. 

AP/HUSSEIN MALLA - La masiva explosión sacudió Beirut el martes, aplastando gran parte del puerto de la ciudad, dañando los edificios de toda la capital y enviando una gigantesca nube en forma de hongo al cielo
AP/HUSSEIN MALLA -  The massive explosion shook Beirut on Tuesday, crushing much of the city's port, damaging buildings throughout the capital and sending a giant mushroom cloud into the sky

The collapse of the currency, rising inflation and the deep financial crisis in Lebanon have exacerbated political tensions in the country. Power cuts or the lack of clean water have become part of the daily routine of many of the country's citizens. Lebanon - a country of some five million people and home to more than 1.5 million refugees - is one of the most heavily indebted nations in the world. This situation of instability has been intensified by the appearance of the coronavirus, which has put the country's health system on the ropes. 

PHOTO/MARWAN NAAMANI - Un hombre se lleva a un herido tras una explosión masiva en el puerto de Beirut que sacudió toda la ciudad
PHOTO/MARWAN NAAMANI - A man takes an injured man after a massive explosion in the port of Beirut that shook the entire city

The explosion has destroyed many buildings, leaving large numbers of people homeless, at a critical time for many Lebanese, who have lost their jobs due to the COVID-19 pandemic. "There are many people missing so far. People are asking the emergency department about their loved ones and it is difficult to search at night because there is no electricity," the Lebanese health minister told Reuters.   The international community has also begun to question whether this country will be able to continue importing much of its vital goods with its main port devastated. 

Lebanese Prime Minister calls on international community for help

"We are witnessing a real catastrophe." With these words, the Lebanese Prime Minister, Hassan Diab, asked his friendly countries for help. In a televised speech he reiterated his promise and assured that those responsible for the disaster would pay the price, according to information gathered by the New York Times. This explosion has also endangered the food security of dozens of countries. Food insecurity is, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), "the likelihood of a dramatic decline in food access or consumption levels, due to environmental or social risks, or reduced coping capacities.

AFP/ IBRAHIM AMOR - Una mujer herida recibe ayuda fuera de un hospital tras una explosión en la capital libanesa, Beirut, el 4 de agosto de 2020
AFP/ IBRAHIM AMOR - An injured woman receives help outside a hospital after an explosion in the Lebanese capital, Beirut, on 4 August 2020

Reuters news agency said that 85 percent of cereal stocks were stored in this port, which handles more than 50 percent of the country's food imports. The main grain silo - run by the Ministry of Economy and Trade - has been turned into rubble and dust after the explosion. The US Department of Agriculture has highlighted - according to the NYT - that around 80 percent of Lebanon's wheat supply is imported, so the country could have lost around 85 percent of its stocks, as they are stored in the destroyed silos.  Even so, the Minister of Economy and Trade, who has been interviewed by the country's National News Agency, has admitted that, although the wheat stored at the port was contaminated, Lebanon has sufficient stocks for its immediate needs.  

AP/HASSAN AMMAR - La mujer herida es evacuada después de una explosión masiva en Beirut, Líbano, el martes 4 de agosto de 2020
AP/HASSAN AMMAR - Injured woman is evacuated after a massive explosion in Beirut, Lebanon, on Tuesday, August 4, 2020

The event came just days after Save The Children sounded the alarm, saying that the collapse of the Lebanese economy had pushed more than half a million children in Beirut into a struggle for survival or even hunger. "This crisis affects everyone: Lebanese families, Palestinian and Syrian refugees alike. We will start seeing children dying of hunger before the end of the year," said Jad Sakr, acting director of Save The Children Lebanon.