Thousands of people have gathered in Beirut in a vigil to mourn the victims of the enormous explosion that devastated the city a week ago. On August 4th, exactly one week ago today, 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate stored in a warehouse on the Beirut docks ignited, causing what experts are saying is one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history. The death toll currently stands at more than 220, with a further 7,000 people injured. An estimated 300,000 people are now homeless, left with nowhere to go in the midst of a global pandemic.
The blast radius was so large that it caused extensive damage to more than half of the city of Beirut. Buildings in and around the port were flattened entirely, while those within a radius of several kilometres sustained extensive structural damage. It even shattered the glass in the terminal buildings of Lebanon’s Rafic Hariri International airport, nearly 10km away to the South. It was heard as far away as Northern Israel and Cyprus, a distance of more than 240 kilometres.
Not since the Bhopal disaster of 1984 has an industrial accident caused so much death and destruction in the very heart of a city. Now that the dust has settled, as the people of Beirut begin to bury their loved ones and consider how they will rebuild their homes and their livelihoods, the same questions are being asked as they were following that night in Bhopal more than 35 years ago: How was this allowed to happen? Who is responsible? How can we ensure that a tragedy of this kind never happens again?
It transpires that the 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate had been stored, against international law, in the port since 2013. They had been removed from a ship, the MV Rhosus, en route from Georgia to Mozambique. For six years local people had lived and worked in the surrounding neighbourhood, unaware that they were on top of a ticking bomb. Following the explosion, the Lebanese government vowed that those responsible would be found and punished, placing a number of individuals from the port authority under house arrest. Yet documentation has been uncovered showing that the ammonium nitrate, once removed from the Rhosus, was originally the responsibility of the Ministry for Transport. After receiving permission to offload the cargo from a judge, they ordered that it be stored in the port – in defiance of the judges ruling that it be stored in a safe location with safety measures in places – and handed off responsibility to the port authority. Individuals in the government had known that this potentially lethal stash of industrial chemicals was sitting in the heart of the city for years, yet they did nothing.
In the wake of the disaster, anti-government protests that have been taking place intermittently since last October, exacerbated first by rampant hyper-inflation and then the arrival of Covid-19, have resumed with a new fury in the past week. Yesterday the Lebanese government officially disbanded, as Prime Minister Hassan Diab and the entire cabinet resigned over the incident. But the people of Beirut know that this does not signal an end to the matter, or a removal of those responsible for this disaster from power. As a caretaker government assumes power for the period until an official election is called, the immediate replacement suggested by President Michel Aoun for Diab as sitting Prime Minister is none other than Saad Hariri, the man who resigned the position in January due to the ongoing protests.
Nor is the political landscape likely to undergo any significant change once an election is called: candidates from the same factions and families have been put forward at every election since the end of the civil war in 1991, with each successive government a mere shuffling of the same familiar faces. This deadlock is caused in part by the country’s diverse religious groups: to ensure that the three main religious factions are represented in government, it is a policy that the president must be a Christian, the Prime Minister a Sunni and the speaker of the house a Shia. Additionally, citizens are required to vote not in their place of residence but in their place of birth or family background, leading to a stagnated system in which votes are bought with favours at a local level and there is no true anonymity for voters.
The people of Beirut are calling for real change, not a mere lip service to accountability followed by an immediate return to the same corrupt and dysfunctional system. But the fact that this disaster was allowed to happen at all signals the need for a greater change, one that takes place on a global scale. A lack of proper regulation and transparency in the chemical industry and a systematic failure by governments to regulate corporations operating within their borders has once again led to a tragedy that has all but destroyed an entire city, more than three decades after the Bhopal gas disaster.
As in Bhopal, those who have survived will be forced to return to the place of their trauma, living around the site of a tragedy that robbed almost everybody in the city of friends and loved ones. As in Bhopal, it is not the government but the community who have come together in the wake of the tragedy to rebuild and heal. Our hearts go out to them and everybody who has been affected by this terrible tragedy. Today we stand with them in calling for accountability for this fresh disaster. We hope that we are heard not only by those in the parliament in Beirut, but by governments and corporations the world over. It is time for change.