A massive explosion in Beirut will intensify already potent popular anger at the Lebanese government and contribute to political infighting, even as it opens the door for much-needed humanitarian aid in the near term. The catastrophic explosion at the port of Beirut sent a shockwave miles through the surrounding area, destroying thousands of homes and buildings. The blast has so far killed over 100 people while injuring thousands more.
Available evidence about the nature of the explosion aligns with the government’s account of the accident, pointing at gross negligence that will elicit anger at authorities. According to Lebanese security officials, the explosion was caused by the likely accidental ignition of 2,750 tons of stored ammonium nitrate that had been seized from a Russian vessel in 2014 over incomplete paperwork. Careless long-term storage of the large volume of the fertilizer goes against best practices.
- Based on the observable damage at both the port of Beirut and throughout the city, the strength of the explosion corresponds with around 2.2-3.1 kilotons of ammonium nitrate.
- The location of the blast seat in the form of a 150-meter-wide crater, and the color of smoke observed during the explosion itself also further corroborate this account and point to an accidental explosion.
The damage to Lebanon’s most critical port, even if temporary, will exacerbate the country’s existing food and supply shortages. The blast destroyed the section of the port that dealt with bulk goods, including food. Lebanon is an import-dependent country that was already struggling to access necessary food and medical supplies prior to the Aug. 4 explosion.
- Food imports make up roughly one-fifth of total imports in Lebanon, and 60 percent of all Lebanese imports come through the port of Beirut.
- The blast destroyed major grain silos containing 85 percent of Lebanon’s cereal imports (such as wheat and rice). According to an Aug. 5 Reuters report, the country’s economy minister warned Lebanon now only has a month left of grain reserves.
The damage to Lebanon’s most critical port in Beruit will exacerbate the country’s food and supply shortages, as well as intensify popular anger at the Lebanese government.
The disaster will open the floodgates for short-term financial relief, though such aid will do little to ease Lebanon’s massive financial shortfalls. Short-term humanitarian aid from concerned global allies and private donors will help provide overwhelmed hospitals and Lebanese aid groups with supplies and funds. But in the long term, the disaster will only aggravate Lebanon’s sizable debt and further complicate the enormous task of restructuring the country’s inefficient and corrupt financial sector.
- Dozens of countries and private donors are likely to offer millions of dollars in humanitarian relief.
- Lebanon’s public sector debt is 150 percent of its GDP, and while creditors might temporarily delay their demands for repayment in the wake of the disaster, the debt itself will endure and likely grow larger as Lebanon faces costly reconstruction efforts while lacking sufficient fiscal margins to do so.
- The catastrophe will exacerbate already worsening poverty levels by leaving more people homeless and could also fuel brain drain from by prompting more high-skilled workers to leave the country in search of better opportunities elsewhere, which will further stymy Lebanon’s long-term economic growth.
Political rivalries in Beirut, meanwhile, will only intensify as the government seeks a scapegoat to blame for the costly negligence that led to the blast. Finger-pointing between government ministries and politicians began even before the dust settled and will continue until someone absorbs the popular anger over the disaster. By deepening Lebanon’s economic and humanitarian crisis, the disaster will also inflate calls for difficult-to-achieve government reforms, further complicating Lebanon’s already hamstrung political environment.
- Prime Minister Hassan Diab has already sworn that an investigation will yield punishment for the responsible party. President Michel Aoun has also promised to oversee a “transparent” investigation into the incident, which, if it actually happens, would be a rare occurrence in Lebanon.
- Even if Hezbollah had nothing to do with Tuesday’s explosion, the incident will also intensify existing calls for the Iran-backed militant group to remove any dangerous munitions and explosives from residential areas in Lebanon.