NAJIB SAAB 17/8/2020

The Beirut catastrophe revealed a blatant failure in dealing with hazardous materials, illustrative not only of the situation in Lebanon but also in other Arab countries.

The explosion reminded the Iraqi government of forgotten containers of suspicious content abandoned on its borders. It drew attention to the dilapidated oil tanker that the Houthi rebels have been holding for years, facing the port of Hodeidah in Yemen, waiting to sink with a million barrels of oil, threatening the Red Sea with an oil spill worse than any marine disaster the world has ever witnessed. Following the explosion, Egypt ordered a cataloguing of hazardous materials of all sorts stored in the warehouses of its ports and airports, prior to moving them to remote safe sites.  

We will not discuss how this massive amount of ammonium nitrate entered the port of Beirut, who imported it, its real final destination and for what use, as this is up to a criminal investigation. Our concern is the proper handling of hazardous material and the level of preparedness against disasters.

We did not need such epic damage to discover the shortcomings in this regard, as it has always been known that matters of public safety were dealt with lightly.   The volume of trade in hazardous material and waste exceeds in many cases that of illegal drugs and weapons. This necessitated devising mechanisms to control and manage these goods, reflected in multiple international conventions, most notably the Basel Convention covering the control of transboundary movements of hazardous wastes and their disposal, and the Rotterdam Convention on hazardous chemicals.

These conventions do not have strong implementation tools and mechanisms, and are managed by tiny secretariats that act at the request of governments. It is reasonable to ask whether these secretariats were aware of the massive ammonium nitrate shipment of 2013 and its true contents, ultimate destination and intended use. If they were not notified of a matter of this magnitude, then their mission and mandate need to be revised.  

This is not the only time that Lebanon has faced the challenge of handling toxic waste and hazardous material. In 2015, some middlemen, lured by the promise of fast profit, convinced the government of exporting Lebanon’s municipal waste, after it had been chronically failing to implement an adequate national waste management plan.

The suspicious deal was only halted after investigations, carried out by media and non-governmental bodies, revealed that the alleged companies were fake, the declared destinations bogus, and the submitted documents a forgery. International law allows the export of waste, under tight restrictions, only to countries that have the ability to properly deal with it, whereas it was revealed that the Lebanese dealers and their associates wanted to secretly dispose of them in poor countries, in coordination with local gangs, or dump them in the sea, to reap hundreds of millions in profits.

In that case, too, international conventions did not help to stop the crime, which was rather exposed and averted by investigative media reports.   In the case of exporting waste, in which the offense was clear and the culprits were known, none of those involved was held accountable. No wonder, in the absence of accountability, that a cache of thousands of tons of hazardous explosive chemicals of military grade, or whatever quantity that remained of it, was parked for six years in a warehouse right in the center of Beirut, as a result of negligence and complicity.

Accepting the naïve narrative that the concealment and abandonment of thousands of tons of chemical explosives, worth millions of dollars, was only due to negligence, is like believing that exporting toxic waste to poor countries is just a humanitarian service performed by charitable organizations.  

The irony is that customs officials, who are in fact responsible to check and control all imports, managed to overlook the imported explosive materials for years, yet recently found enough time to carry high-profile inspection campaigns targeting storage spaces of locally-produced poultry, something not within their jurisdiction.

Had they examined the ammonium nitrate shipment upon arrival or in the depots, as they examined the frozen poultry, they would have found that it was not fertilizers destined for agricultural use, but rather high-grade explosive material according to tests conducted much too late and revealed only after the explosion.  

Before the Beirut disaster hit, my team was preparing a detailed report on how to manage the debris left by the wars and battles in Iraq. We were in agreement with colleagues at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) on the need to benefit from Lebanon’s experience, after the civil war, in dealing with tens of millions of tons of rubble resulting from demolished buildings.

At the beginning of the 1990s, Beirut’s rubble was crushed and separated with custom-made equipment, and salvaged elements, including stone, cement blocks and steel were reused. We did not imagine, in our worst nightmares, that Beirut would be covered by rubble again, before our report on Iraq is published.  

The gigantic explosion in Beirut resulted in nearly two million cubic meters of rubble. Teams of young volunteers helped remove debris from damaged roads, homes and offices. However, in the absence of a government disaster management plan, glass was not separated at source to facilitate treatment and utilization of other components. Broken glass in an area stretching over 10 kilometers from the blast site was estimated at 15 million square meters, weighing 250 thousand tons. Within less than 15 seconds, a single explosion destroyed what the war had ravaged over 15 years in that part of Beirut.  

As Beirut heals its deep wounds, and neighboring countries start to reconsider regulations governing the movement and storage of hazardous material, governments should urgently set strict standards for importing, exporting and storing hazardous material, enhance industrial security, and adopt effective disaster management plans.

The international community must activate the role of organizations concerned with implementing international conventions governing the transfer and storage of hazardous waste and toxic chemicals, lest they turn into a false witness, whose role is limited to offering condolences and participating in funerals in the wake of every disaster.

Finally, there must be clear, stringent, and diligently enforced accountability standards and mechanisms related to the proper storage and handling of these materials.  

No one knows when Lebanon will, once again, rise and rebuild following yet another disaster. We hope that at least lessons will be learned from this disaster and a greater urgency will be felt for acting to avoid other waste and hazardous materials catastrophes waiting to happen in Lebanon and the region.