Lebanon’s Ruined Port Is a Nightmare to Rebuild

Politics, corruption, and the pandemic impede reconstruction of the country’s lifeline.

The destruction at Beirut's port on Aug 10 after the huge chemical explosion that devastated the Lebanese capital.
The destruction at Beirut's port on Aug 10 after the huge chemical explosion that devastated the Lebanese capital. JOSEPH EID/AFP via Getty Images

When the dust settled, the crater was obvious. Where previously a warehouse stood on a dock jutting into the water, there remained ruin, debris, water, and contaminated grain. The Beirut port explosion of Aug. 4 has already claimed more than 200 lives, injured thousands, damaged thousands of buildings, and, after protests, prompted the resignation of Lebanon’s government.

What comes next hinges mostly on logistics—and on the ability of an already overstretched country to repair a critical part of its infrastructure.

The Beirut explosion not only crippled the port’s ability to receive cargo, but also caused significant damage to the Beirut Port Silos, which have a total grain storage capacity of 120,000 metric tons (132,000 tons), though they reportedly only held 15,000 metric tons at the time of the blast. Local news reported that the blast also damaged two ships unloading grain at the time of the explosion and hurt a local flour mill. Compared to the port, though, that damage is minor. Beirut’s port is responsible for 85 percent of the country’s grain, and while parts of the port may be operational by the end of the month, ensuring the steady supply of aid to the country means leaning on other channels for transport.

The most immediate of those other channels is the port of Tripoli, 43 miles up the coast as the crow flies. Tripoli has limitations: It’s a smaller port with a shallower draft, but those can mostly be accounted for and planned around. More important, as supplies that once flowed through Beirut are routed from other locations, is to manage and accommodate the new strain placed upon these routes.

“It’s not about the workaround on the port. It’s about bottleneck prevention on the sudden surge,” said Nathaniel Raymond, a lecturer at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs at Yale University. “It’s logistics management capability, in the customs capability of the home government.”

That’s tricky given the general lack of state capacity in Lebanon right now—a crisis reflected in the conditions that created the blast itself. Lebanon’s present politics reflect a carefully articulated political balance hinged on the country’s last official census, which was taken in 1932, when Lebanon was still governed under French mandate. Power-sharing agreements worked out since then maintain certain positions as fixed for particular ethnoreligious groups—the prime minister is always a Sunni Muslim, the president always a Maronite Christian—but are increasingly detached from the present demographics of the country. Instead, they have created durable and mutually beneficial systems of state plunder and customs evasion, with income that could go toward building the state’s capacities instead siphoned off by internal factions to support their own power structures.

Customs is the intermediary between goods delivered to the country and the local government, which signs off on the approval of those goods for distribution internally. That makes it a prime focus for graft and negligence—and makes the business of reestablishing the port all the trickier, as the public demands a clean hand while politicians hand out new positions as plums to political supporters.

A Devastated Port

Satellite images from June 9 and Aug. 5 show the power of the explosion at the port of Beirut with a large crater visible at the primary blast location, extensive destruction throughout the area, and a capsized passenger ship, the Orient Queen, nearby.

Satellite image ©2020 Maxar Technologies

Complicating matters even further is Lebanon’s neighbor, Israel. Just 80 miles south of Beirut is the port of Haifa in Israel.

“Haifa is the biggest port in the region. Is Israel going to open the blue line? That’s a United Nations patrolled border, but there’s only one checkpoint between Haifa and Beirut,” said Raymond. “So the question is, we want to use Haifa over Tripoli, but what’s basically the cost benefit analysis on the bureaucracy and getting across that checkpoint.”

Complicating matters even further is Lebanon’s neighbor, Israel.

The U.N. checkpoint and the posture of Israel’s present government, to say nothing of the long-standing tensions and history of conflict between Israel and Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, make resupply through Haifa a politically difficult proposition. If it is to be managed, it will likely come under the auspices of the United Nations. The U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon has been present since 1978, and part of its continuing mandate is to assure humanitarian assistance makes it to civilians.

By Aug. 6, Beirut’s airport had already received aid from the United States, with U.S. Central Command announcing that a C-17 Globemaster had delivered 11 pallets of food, water, and medical supplies. Air routes can supplement delivery by sea, especially if continuously maintained, but cannot accommodate anything near the same volume at the same cost. Beirut’s airport is also a microcosm of the multifaceted security situation in Lebanon, with different parts of airport security linked to different political camps in the country

“Lebanon was already facing a humanitarian crisis,” said Bujar Hoxha, country director for CARE. CARE has been in Lebanon since 2006, and increased work in the country after the start of the civil war in neighboring Syria. “So add to that Syrian refugee crisis. Add to that COVID-19. We had a triple crisis going on in Lebanon. And then we ask, can it get worse? Yes, it can. The explosion occurred.”

Managing those overlapping humanitarian crises before the explosion meant managing the provision of housing, food, and medical aid. Approaches that worked before the pandemic shifted as organizations moved away from in-person contact to distance work by telecommunications, which required a lot of change in practice to meet the same needs. And meeting housing needs, already a crisis, was hard when many of the most vulnerable were already living in cramped conditions and food-insecure.

“What often can be really bad especially in a rapid onset like this is people start sending stuff,” said Raymond. “The last thing that’s needed here is stuff unless, we’re talking about direct specific requests for things like plasma, like mobile stand up hospitals, etc.”

Getting cash to the organizations distributing help on the ground is commonly recognized as the most effective way for people outside the country to help, but there are going to be some particular hurdles in how that money for aid gets distributed.

“The OFAC questions are going to be massive,” said Raymond, specifically highlighting how U.S. sanctions restrictions, run through the Office of Foreign Assets Control, pose a challenge to any aid that might end up distributed through Hezbollah, one of the most powerful factions in Lebanese politics. The Treasury Department currently sanctions a number of specific Hezbollah members and the organization as a whole, as well as maintaining the option of secondary sanctions for any person or group that does transactions with Hezbollah.

“You’re gonna have different types of assistance in different pools of money coming in,” said Raymond. “And we’ve got to make sure that there’s no hang up on being able to move cash quickly when one of the biggest factors in this is going to be Hezbollah.”

At the best of times, managing the governance issues around aid and existing legal and physical barriers is tricky, even assuming all parties are doing so in good faith. Managing an influx of cash for aid into this will fall on an economy that was already struggling, and on a political dynamic about to be shaken up even further by the verdict in the case of former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri’s 2005 assassination, of which Hezbollah agents are accused.

“The people in Lebanon are living in a state of shock and trauma as we speak now. It’s much greater after the explosion, but it was vulnerable to economic crises,” said Hoxha. “The purchasing power faded rapidly over the past five months. Half a million jobs have been lost over the past five months. 50% live below the poverty line, this is without having exposure.”

Purchasing power is a metric not just of money on hand, but of how far that money can go relative to the prices of local goods. While purchasing power doesn’t directly affect aid that is donated, it does make it harder for people to buy goods transported in for purchase, especially when those goods are flown in instead of delivered by sea. That is all exacerbated by what risks becoming further COVID-19 outbreaks stemming from immediate recovery efforts after the blast.

“It’s a bad day on the high seas,” said Raymond, referencing the Brandon Bird painting Bad Day on the High Sea. “It is a giant squid. It is a whale. It is a Tyrannosaurus Rex. And right now, this is a giant explosion. What this really is, is a logistical riddle wrapped in a political nightmare.”

Untangling that logistical puzzle, and the politics around it, will be the work of Lebanon’s strong civil society.

“If you look at the post explosion effect,” said Hoxha, “you see that the most proactive initiatives have been taken by citizens themselves by community based organizations, grassroot organizations, local NGOs, and as CARE we have rapidly responded to that. Civil society organizations have shown that they are quite vibrant and they have very solid leadership.”

As nations seek to respond to the aftermath of the explosion in the coming weeks and months, if they choose to work with those directly on the ground, who already have experience in aid distribution, it should help overcome many of the hurdles that naturally come from a multinational response in a country as carefully structured as Lebanon.

If disaster awaits, it will come in the form of introduced friction, exploitation that seeks to magnify some internal forces at the expenses of others. Or it will come from seeing the explosion as a wholly standalone crisis, and not one in a series of hardships that are interlinked and must be managed together.

Kelsey D. Atherton is a defense technology journalist based in Albuquerque, New Mexico.