Assessment of Port of Beirut Explosion; Civil Unrest
On August 4, 2020, a major explosion at the Port of Beirut caused severe damage to nearly half of the city's structures. Rescue teams have recovered the remains of 140 German, Lebanese, and Syrian citizens, while thousands more remain injured. The Intelligence Ledger assesses that the destruction of a major logistical hub, coupled with formidable popular discontent amongst the civilian populous, will lead to major civil unrest in the short term and major political challenges in the future.
In the aftermath of the explosion, it became clear that Beirut was an extremely fragile and wounded city. Although loss of life and widespread injuries are saddening, more pressing concerns have emerged in the wake of the incident.
According to initial surveys conducted by non-governmental organizations, all buildings in the immediate area of the epicenter were leveled or structurally compromised. This fact will halt operations at the port for several months. In downtown Beirut, critical infrastructure and residential areas have been devastated, with some estimates projecting as many as 275,000 people now find themselves homeless. Power production has also been severely compromised, with rolling blackouts now afflicting those structure still standing.
Compounding the city's woes is an ineffective and unresponsive government. Although military and rescue personnel have been called in from throughout Lebanon, politicians and Hezbollah have failed to prove to their constituents that they can provide critical services in the face of a national disaster. Although the government was sorely unpopular prior to the explosion, its bungled response will only increase citizens anger and distrust.
International support was quick to flow into the broken metropolis, with many states seeking to flex their soft power. Streams of transport aircraft from Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Jordan, and France have flown into Beirut International Airport with much need supplies and personnel.
Although many media outlets and social media activists have claimed that the explosion of August 2 was a targeted airstrike, The Intelligence Ledger has reached the conclusion that the incident was the result of poor handling of ammonium nitrate (NH₄NO₃). In 2014, the Lebanese government sized 2,750 tons of the substance from a Russian vessel due to incorrect and incomplete paperwork. For nearly six years, port officials carelessly stored the NH₄NO₃ in warehouse 12, a fireworks storage facility. Apparently, it didn't cross anyone's mind that placing a volatile substance next to crates of explosives amid triple digit temperatures wasn't a good idea.
The destruction of the Port of Beirut will have major, if not existential consequences for the Lebanese government. Its immediate concern will need to be the continued flow of food and grain. The blast crippled the port's bulk goods facilities and destroyed the grain silos adjacent to warehouse 12. These silos nearly 85% of Lebanon's cereal imports, leaving Lebanon with only one month of grain reserves at other dispersed locations. Another equally important concern will be the quick development of alternative port facilities to meet a major surge in traffic, as nearly 60% of Lebanon's imports came through Beirut.
Reconstruction of the port and surrounding residential areas will be a seemingly insurmountable challenge for the Lebanese government, as the country is in the midst of a major economic crisis. Decades of corruption, neglect, and uncontrolled spending has left government coffers dry and its civilian populous without a future. Although short-term humanitarian aid and financial relief from the international community will pour into the nation, underlying issues with Lebanon's government and economy will continue to undermine development efforts in the years to come.