Last year, I and several colleagues undertook a case study on disaster risk reduction (DRR) in Lebanon, as part of a project looking at DRR in fragile and conflict-affected contexts. Given our findings, it is therefore unsurprising to hear that the recent tragedy in Beirut – though man-made rather than due to a natural hazard – was a result of the government's failure to act proactively and protect against potential disasters.
Early indications suggest that the disaster ‘was an accident, possibly the outcome of neglect on a massive scale’. The blast was foreseeable, as consecutive governments ignored warnings regarding the 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate held at the city’s port since 2013. Indeed, the result of the explosion was not only the destruction of much of Beirut, but also the resignation of the Prime Minister and his government, who acknowledged that the disaster stemmed from ‘endemic corruption’.
Our research identified three key factors that speak to why the disaster may have occurred, what we need to do now and what can be done to help Lebanon in its rebuilding efforts, while mitigating against any future catastrophes.
Lebanon needs a multi-hazard approach to disasters
In our work, we describe Lebanon as a ‘fragile peace’ – a country with deep-seated community tensions that could result in violence at any time. The economic downturn that started last year and Covid-19 have made the country more fragile and less peaceful.
These three issues combined show the need for a multi-hazard approach to disasters. Yet, during our research it was difficult to speak about DRR for hazards such as earthquakes, mudslides or snow storms, because many felt that another war was more likely, and any preparations made should be to that end.
This mindset may well have contributed to the government’s failure to act on the stores of ammonium nitrate, as it prioritised the risk of violent conflict above other possible threats.
Local non-state actors are crucial in the response phase
In a country divided along sharp sectarian lines, our research has shown that the Lebanese Red Cross has a ‘long history and strong commitment to the principles of neutrality, impartiality and independence … [which] has enabled a strong degree of acceptance by almost all sections of Lebanese society’.
In the initial emergency period and throughout the pandemic, support for local, non-state actors who employ a conflict-sensitivity lens, such as the Lebanese Red Cross, is vital, particularly as the country deals with 300,000 more people displaced by the blast, on top of the 1.5 million refugees from Syria and Palestine that Lebanon is already hosting.
Rebuilding Beirut requires a new risk-sensitive approach to DRR
Even now, just over a week on from the blast, policymakers should start thinking about the next phase: how to rebuild Beirut with a DRR lens.
Although the country has had building codes since 2003, informants for our research noted they were rarely put into practice, ‘with one interviewee estimating that 80% of buildings in Beirut did not have formal validation’.
Another explosion from stored ammonium nitrate may be unlikely, but reconstruction should consider the impact of the full range of hazards that face Beirut, including earthquakes and urban fires from faulty wiring. Implementing building codes in new builds – without exceptions – and retrofitting existing structures should be a key priority.
Finally, reconstruction is about more than just rebuilding the city. In a context of ‘fragile peace’, the political system and community ties will also need to be strengthened.
To this end, Lebanon should consider using new DRR approaches, such as ‘utilising religious groups as a vehicle for risk information’ and innovative work on achieving conflict-sensitive disaster resilience in sectarian contexts. Donors should be prepared to fund these approaches at scale throughout the country.