Beirut confronts environmental crisis post-explosion

Jonathan Logan

Science & Environment Editor

 

Thomas Friedman, the famous New York Times Middle East correspondent, described Beirut as “the city of versions” in his 1989 book From Beirut to Jerusalem. After being ravaged by civil war, invaded by Israel and serving as Yasser Arafat’s PLO headquarters in the 1970s and 1980s, one might think this resilient capital city of Lebanon had seen every version of a crisis.

On Aug. 4, 2019, 2,750 metric tons of ammonium nitrate – a  chemical used primarily in agricultural fertilizers – exploded into a red-hued mushroom cloud. A Russian-owned, Mozambique-bound vessel brought the ammonium nitrate to the port city in 2013. Logistics forced the ship, MV Rhosus, to remain in Beirut – along with its volatile cargo. The shockwave created by the explosion  killed 190 Beirutis and injured an additional 6,000 according
to a Wall Street Journal article. Words fail to capture the mag-
nitude of human loss at the hands of bureaucratic mismanagement. Any person who has seen the countless pieces of raw footage out of Beirut will attest to as much. Yet, the battle for recovery has just begun. Now the city faces an environmental crisis in the aftermath  of the explosion.

Immediately following the events of Aug. 4, The World Bank issued a Rapid Damage and Needs Assessment (RDNA) for Beirut. Methodology employed by The World Bank in drafting the Beirut RDNA included analyzing ground data gathered in the field and geospatial satellite imagery. Among the findings are the following stark figures: infrastructure damages ranging from $3.8- 4.6 billion,
housing losses totaling $2.9- 3.5 billion, and transportation sectors will need upwards of $2 billion to recover. The report identified Environment and Social Sustainability as two “cross-cutting” sectors most impacted by the explosion. The RDNA, in addition to specifically naming the environmental sector as heavily hit, reinforced this message by highlighting major losses in the energy sector along with water supply and water sanitation shortfalls.

On Tuesday Sept. 1, 2020, Jihan Seoud, Manager of the Energy and Environment Program at the UN Development Program’s (UNDP) Lebanon office expressed deep concern over the explosion, saying Beirut’s environment “was already in a ‘dismal state’ before the disaster.” Seoud’s remarks were summarized in a UN News article published the same day. The epicenter of the explosion – the
Port of Beirut – was the site of storage facilities where hazardous chemicals used in pesticides, pharmaceuticals and heavy metals were held. In addition to these hazardous chemicals, Beirut is facing the daunting task of cleaning up 800,000 tons of construction and demolition waste.

To offer some perspective, the Ohio Environmental Protection  Agency reported that the Buckeye State produced 2.1 million tons of construction and demolition waste in 2018. The Beirut blast produced nearly half of the state of Ohio’s yearly demolition
waste in a single instant.

While the explosion did not impact air quality in the capital, the potential for hazardous particulate matter to become airborne during cleanup remains. Airborne pollutants and COVID-19 would pose a dual threat to healthy and immunocompromised Beirutis alike. Seoud, in the Tuesday press conference, reported that Beirut may also be facing a solid waste crisis; one of the city’s two solid waste plants remains badly damaged. Due to the inoperability of this plant, more waste is being transported directly to landfills, one of which now approaches capacity.

Prior to the events of Aug. 4, Lebanon faced a bill of $2.35 billion in environmental cleanup efforts across the country. The UNDP  estimates a further $100 million will be necessary to counter the “environmental degradation” directly caused by the blast. To get a sense of where these enormous figures come from, one need look no further than satellite imagery. Where the warehouse that stored the ammonium nitrate once stood, there is now a 141- foot deep crater filled with seawater.

Despite these gloomy statistics and a Hezbollah-influenced  government, Seoud is hopeful that Beirut and Lebanon will begin to transition toward renewable energy in the reconstruction process. The rest of the world has much to learn in the way of resiliency from Beirutis. The city, in spite of its troubled past, stands on the precipice of reform, sustainable development and environmental progress now that it has captured the world’s sympathies.

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