Exactly two years have passed since one of the most powerful explosions of non-nuclear origin took place in Beirut, Lebanon. On the 4th of August 2020, the residents of Beirut started their day as usual not knowing that their lives would change forever. At 18:08, a fire triggered the detonation of 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate. For years, large quantities of ammonium nitrate were stored at a warehouse in the Port of Beirut. Ammonium nitrate is a highly explosive chemical compound commonly used in fertilisers and as an explosive for quarrying and mining.
The explosion instantly destroyed large parts of the city and was even heard in Cyprus, which is more than 240km away. Tragically, the blast claimed the lives of 218 people and injured more than 7,000 people in the city. The true extent of the damage was visible soon after, almost 300,000 residents were left homeless. There was widespread destruction and devastation, with buildings up to 20km away having been damaged.
Islamic Relief immediately pledged $5 million in emergency funding to help the people of Lebanon recover. The initial response focused on distributing food, essential hygiene kits and health assistance to those that were sheltering in communal buildings such as schools, mosques, and churches.
Before the disaster, Lebanon had been in financial hardship due to high government debt from previous civil wars. The impact of the global pandemic added further strain to an already fragile economy.
The explosion caused $15 billion worth of damages and the port of Beirut was left destroyed. This was a huge blow as the port was the country's main entry point for imported goods. Lebanon is heavily dependent on imported food, and the port of Beirut accounts for 60% of the country's imports. The damage to the port caused a surge in food and fuel prices throughout Lebanon.
To date, the port is not operating at full capacity, in fact, on Sunday 31st July 2022 part of the damaged grain silos at the port collapsed. The silos were used to store much of the country's wheat supply. The recent conflict in Ukraine has also made the already dire situation worse, as the country relies on Ukraine for 80% of its imported wheat supply.
Refugees and Rising Costs
What makes the situation in Lebanon increasingly challenging is that millions of refugees have fled into camps within the country. For many years, Lebanon has been a hub for refugees fleeing from conflict in neighbouring Palestine and Syria. According to the UNHCR, more than 1 million Syrians and almost half a million Palestinians are registered as refugees in Lebanon. This crisis, on top of the existing economic problems in the major cities of the country has made everyday life in the country very difficult. The rising cost of food and fuel has also made delivering aid to the refugee camps an extremely difficult task.
Islamic Relief has been working in Lebanon since 2006, in response to a humanitarian crisis caused by war. Our work currently provides a lifeline to vulnerable people throughout Lebanon by delivering shelter, blankets, and fuel to struggling families. On a recent visit to Lebanon in March 2022, Islamic Relief's Deputy Director of Global Programmes Operations, Dr Ahmed Nasr, saw first-hand how severe the humanitarian situation has become in the country.
Dr Ahmed Nasr said:
"Astronomical inflation and the severe devaluation of the Lebanese pound has placed even the most basic items beyond the reach of most people. I was saddened to hear that in some cases, fuel shortages have become so severe that Islamic Relief staff were forced to reluctantly concede that it is no longer possible to assist more remote communities".
Islamic Relief's existing orphan sponsorship programme has helped to support thousands of children in Lebanon, alleviating some of the financial pressures their families face.
Alongside these programmes, we operate development initiatives in sectors including healthcare, education, and livelihoods. Through this work, we support vulnerable people, including those whose lives have been upended by the Beirut explosion and the crisis in neighbouring Syria and Palestine, to become self-reliant once more through skill training and small loans.
We will continue to work together to minimise the suffering of those in need. The severity of Lebanon's humanitarian situation requires a longer-term strategy, and we have formulated a plan to increase support and aid for the country, as well as to ensure that our existing projects are as efficient and beneficial as possible. Although two years have passed since the tragedy, the country is still plagued by the disaster. More work is needed to support families and communities to overcome economic hardship.