Lebanon Struggles to Pick up the Pieces After the Beirut Port Explosion

Lebanon’s independence in 1943 formally ended a 23-year French mandate backed by the League of Nations, a period that saw the consolidation of the country’s current borders, with Beirut as its capital. The capital city’s prime location on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean turned it into a hub of commerce and tourism. But since independence, Lebanon’s stability has been interrupted by a brutal civil war, by regional political and military disputes, and by multiple Israeli invasions, the most notable of which took place in 1982. Perhaps most significantly, a series of corrupt, absent, or otherwise ineffective leaders and governments over the years have helped steer the country into the ranks of potential failed states. But perhaps nothing more clearly revealed the desperation, decline, and unnecessary trauma the country has experienced than the massive explosion that occurred in the Port of Beirut just over two years ago, on August 4, 2020.

The Port of Beirut served as a commercial hub for the region for centuries, but was expanded in the late 1800s under the auspices of an Ottoman company, becoming one of the busiest ports in the Middle East. By 2020, a significant majority of Lebanon’s imports and exports—82 percent—went through the port, which was connected to 300 other ports around the world and handled 1.5 million shipping containers per year, generating $250 million annually in fees. Importantly, the port also served as a storage area for food and medicines destined for the Lebanese market. On a more intangible level, this area of Beirut has long been seen as part of the lifeblood of the city given its close proximity to residential neighborhoods and markets, and to the site of anti-government protests in 2019 that, ironically, were motivated in part by a lack of government accountability, poor provision of services, and deteriorating infrastructure.

The 2020 explosion was caused by a shipment of 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate that was headed to Mozambique, but that in 2013 was unloaded at the Beirut port after the vessel carrying it was forced to dock due to technical issues. The ship was subsequently impounded for its owners’ inability to pay port fees, which meant that its cargo also stayed put. The highly volatile chemical compound sat neglected for years in a warehouse at the port, until on a typical bustling day in the city it exploded, causing one of the largest non-nuclear blasts in history.

Lebanon’s imminent collapse had been predicted well before the explosion— and even before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. But the port explosion undeniably precipitated a downward spiral that has yet to be reversed. And although much has been written about the economic and political ramifications of the explosion in the two years since it occurred, far less attention has been paid to its significant social toll.

Immediate Social Outcomes

The aftermath of the blast was chaotic and destructive. As one local scientist put it, “I could only imagine myself in Pompeii the day Vesuvius blew up and transformed people into vitrified mass.” The shockwaves from the blast were even felt 150 miles away in Cyprus. For hours, no one had a clear understanding about what had actually happened. Hundreds of people were missing. Local authorities declared Beirut a “disaster city” and imposed a state of emergency. As the dust cleared, rescue and recovery personnel were able to make the initial assessment of the damage. A total of 218 people were killed, including Lebanese, Syrians, Ethiopians, Palestinians, Canadians, and Americans, a toll that reflects Beirut’s diversity. Approximately 7,000 people were injured, with 150 having acquired a permanent physical disability. Due to the port’s location close to residential areas, 77,000 apartments were damaged, displacing 300,000 people and leaving 80,000 children homeless. Damage to roads, energy infrastructure, water and sanitation facilities, and other public services was extensive. And of course, the psychological toll to the people of the city, especially those who were near the site of impact or who lost loved ones, homes, or their livelihoods in the blast, was immeasurable.

The psychological toll to the people of the city, especially those who were near the site of impact or who lost loved ones, homes, or their livelihoods in the blast, was immeasurable.

Aside from this immediate human toll, it quickly became apparent that infrastructure destroyed in the blast would cause even more hardship in the near future. The World Bank estimated that the explosion caused roughly $8 billion in damages and losses. Three hospitals near the port were destroyed, and another three were damaged, leaving Beirut with less than half of its pre-blast healthcare infrastructure. This translated to a loss of 500 hospital beds, which was further compounded by the destruction of 17 shipping containers of medical supplies and personal protective equipment. Because there were so many trauma-related injuries as a result of the blast, hospitals used up months of supplies in just a few days. Most of these stores have still not been replenished. And just months later, Lebanon’s health minister made clear that due to a lack of beds, hospitals would not be able to deal with increasing numbers of COVID-19 cases. Intensive care units were at critical capacity at the time.

Meanwhile, with Lebanon’s school year set to start not long after the explosion, it was also apparent that many students would not get a typical back-to-school welcome. An estimated 280 schools, universities, and training centers were damaged in the explosion, affecting more than 85,000 students, not to mention thousands of teachers. Traumatized families also had to make tough choices for their children, with some families sending their kids to work instead of to school, to help make ends meet. Others were afraid to send their children to school, especially on public transportation, due to fears that there could be another destructive event.

The importance of the port to Lebanon’s imports and exports meant that with its destruction a major connection to the world was cut off. This led to immediate consequences. The explosion destroyed Lebanon’s only grain silos, as well as multiple warehouses where food was stored. A month after the blast, the UN warned that Beirut’s ability to import and store wheat and other cereals had fallen to a fifth or less of its pre-blast levels. While multiple domestic and international agencies mobilized to help fill the gaps and avoid widescale food shortages, and even though other ports in the country, such as the Port of Tripoli, ramped up capacity, the country’s food supply chain was massively disrupted, adding to the social toll of the explosion.

Long-term Social Outcomes

Beirut is a bustling metropolis that is home to 2.4 million people, and that has one of the highest costs of living in the world, currently ranking among the top 20 most expensive cities globally. Yet despite its global profile, the city is currently suffering from substantial social deterioration, the consequences of which also manifest themselves throughout the rest of the country. Just one year after the blast, the price of goods had already increased by an astonishing 580 percent, half of the Lebanese population was living below the poverty line, and unemployment in the formal sector had increased by 35 percent. One year on from the explosion, almost one million people in Beirut, more than half of them children, could no longer afford food, water, and electricity. Today, hospitals, schools, and other facilities are turning off lights in attempts to save fuel and lower their exorbitant electricity costs. This level of societal collapse in a previously upper-middle-income country that is not engaged in active warfare is nearly unprecedented in modern times.

Lebanon had traditionally been a very attractive destination for aspiring professionals since it boasted world class universities and offered both a high quality of life and a sense of stability that was not present in many of its Levantine neighbors. Although the country’s healthcare system has been under significant strain for years, and especially since Lebanon’s financial system collapsed in 2019, the port blast exacerbated what was already a fragile situation.

Since the blast, doctors have started to report empty medication shelves at hospitals, and the country as a whole now lacks basic medicines such as epinephrine and more advanced pharmaceuticals such as those needed to treat cancer.

Since the blast, doctors have started to report empty medication shelves at hospitals, and the country as a whole now lacks basic medicines such as epinephrine and more advanced pharmaceuticals such as those needed to treat cancer. Patients have begun skipping or rationing medications, resulting in medical complications that can require invasive and expensive treatments. Pregnant women are delivering babies without having ever seen a doctor for prenatal care, resulting in unhealthy newborns. Some doctors even report instances of parents leaving their babies at the hospital after delivery because they cannot afford to take care of them. Perhaps most worrying, doctors and nurses are leaving Lebanon in droves due to poor working conditions and pay that is insufficient to meet their needs in the face of skyrocketing prices. In June 2022 the director of Lebanon’s largest public hospital reported that he has lost 75 percent of the hospital’s physicians and a third of its nursing staff in just the past few years.

The initial warning signs in the educational system have also accelerated. Research by the United Nations found that 30 percent of those aged 15-24 have dropped out of school, while child labor rates have increased. And many families who may still wish to send their children to school simply cannot afford the transportation costs. Much like the country’s doctors and nurses, professors and teachers are leaving Lebanon in high numbers, leading to fears that many of the students who persist in schooling and attain an education in a much-needed field will later join this exodus of trained professionals and look for jobs outside of Lebanon, leaving the country in an even more dire situation in the future.

In general, the level of desperation and poverty in the country is staggering, leaving many to label the nation a failed state. Many residents largely rely on remittances and goods sent from friends and family abroad in order to survive. Many also depend on the black market for items such as medication, stamps, fuel, and even paper. It has also become common to resort to systems of bartering to obtain basics like bread, baby formula, and bottled water. With food inflation having reached 332 percent, foods like meat and fruit have become luxury goods. Meanwhile, due to an electricity crisis, people spend their days hunting for places to charge their phones. And the UN recently raised the alarm about the country’s water system, given that many residents are unable to receive the globally accepted necessary minimum amount of water per day. While it is difficult to untangle effects that are specifically caused by the port blast from other social, economic, and political issues in the country, the event clearly caused further political instability and socioeconomic deterioration. Importantly, it also showed the people of Lebanon that at the end of the day, their government was unable or uninterested in protecting them.

What comes next?

In 2021, the World Bank reported that Lebanon’s multiple crises likely ranked as among the most severe the world had seen in over a century. Corruption, nepotism, elitism, and an overall system that “benefited a few for so long” are seen as major factors in this decline, and are some of the same factors that led to the port blast to begin with. Extensive investigations found that many Lebanese officials knew about the risks of the abandoned ammonium nitrate and yet did nothing to mitigate them, let alone to protect the public. In a shocking and ironic development, on the two-year anniversary of the blast, the port burned once again, as heat and humidity sparked fires in the port’s grain silos, causing several of them to collapse. It seems that, at least for now, there is no end to the trauma and indignities inflicted upon the people of Lebanon.

With the political situation in continuing flux, and no obvious solution in sight for the multiple economic crises affecting the country, it is unclear how, when, and if Lebanon will be able to restore its longstanding and uniquely vibrant luster.

With the political situation in continuing flux, and no obvious solution in sight for the multiple economic crises affecting the country, it is unclear how, when, and if Lebanon will be able to restore its longstanding and uniquely vibrant luster. As the country’s health minister recently opined, “There is no doubt Lebanon is a sick country now but the main question is whether it’s a terminal disease or a disease that can be cured.” With so many factors impacting its social outcomes—including poverty, hunger, and overall hopelessness, to name just a few—Lebanon needs significant support to overcome its many challenges.

Multilateral agencies have requested millions of dollars to help provide said support. But Lebanon also needs a government worthy of the task, one in which the public can finally have faith. Many of the country’s best and brightest are leaving, and many of those left behind feel that the country’s best days are long gone. Hundreds of pages of recommendations have been written in recent years, and there is no doubt that the nation needs significant reform. Will the leaders of Lebanon rise to the task, or will they continue to steal whatever they can from the system before it collapses completely? What would a further collapse even look like? As this story continues to be written, we can only hope that Lebanon’s rich history does not come to an end at the hands of corrupt elites who could not be bothered to lift a finger to prevent one of the region’s worst modern disasters.