Beirut Blast: Humanitarian aid needed to prevent a devastating food crisis

While it is unclear how long it will take to get answers on the cause of the Beirut explosion, work needs to be done immediately in responding to the great humanitarian need in the city, writes Alison Heron
Beirut Blast: Humanitarian aid needed to prevent a devastating food crisis

The devastation in Beirut following the explosion at the port. Picture: Caritas/Trócaire

It is now one week on from the explosion in at the port in Beirut.

There had been a two-day partial relaxation of lockdown measures in the city, so I had been able to visit Trócaire’s office last Tuesday, having worked from home over recent months. 

After finishing work in the office, I had arranged to meet a friend who I hadn’t seen in nearly five months due to the limitations of the lockdown.

We had just sat down outside a bar in our neighbourhood, around a mile from the port, and we were excitedly catching up when the first explosion went off. 

We could see the smoke billowing into the air and there was a really loud noise. 

Everyone was looking up trying to figure out what was happening. A large red plume of smoke went up in the sky, everything rocked, and suddenly a thick cloud of debris ripped through the street and we were thrown to the ground.

I don’t know if we were concussed or just in shock, but we quickly got under a table to get cover from the debris. 

We didn’t know what had happened, but I quickly realised we needed to get out of there. 

As I stood up and looked around, the level of destruction was shocking. Every window was blown out, there were part of walls on the ground, cars had been flattened and there were people covered in blood around us, stunned, not knowing what had happen.

We made our way through the glass-covered streets to find another injured friend and look for somewhere safe. Friends of mine took us in for the night. They cleaned our wounds, fed us and we sat together in shock, trying to figure out what had happened.

Like hundreds of thousands of people in the city, my apartment was destroyed in the explosion with the window, doors and even the door-frames blown off. 

Looking back, I don’t know how I came out of it basically unscathed. I just had a few glass wounds and a bump on my head. It feels like a miracle and I feel lucky to be alive.

I was also very grateful when I heard that all the Trócaire team in Lebanon were safe; however, we have all been impacted in different ways. 

Trócaire’s office is around 2.2km, from the site of the explosion. 

Damage done to the Trócaire office in Beirut
Damage done to the Trócaire office in Beirut

Thankfully no-one was present in the office when the blast happened and all of Trócaire’s local partner staff are also safe. 

Already, hundreds of staff and volunteers from our partner organisations – Caritas Lebanon, SAWA for Development and Aid, and Basmeh and Zeitooneh – have been helping in Beirut, providing emergency supplies to people, helping to clear rubble both in the homes and on the streets and distributing food and water to people affected by the explosion.

The cause of the explosion is being investigated and it has been linked to 2,700 tonnes of ammonium nitrate that was being negligently stored in a port warehouse for six years. 

The blast was heard as far as Cyprus, more than 120 miles away. 

Over 5,000 people were injured by the blast and over 300,000 people have been left homeless. 

As emergency services begin to clear rubble and debris, the death toll continues to rise. At the time of writing over 159 people are reported dead but many more are missing.

It had been devastating walking around the city over the past days. East Beirut has been decimated, there is not a building unharmed. 

The streets have been full of people helping with the clean-up. 

Groups of young people and volunteers are walking through the streets with shovels and sweeping brushes, going door to door offering to help, handing out water and taping up windows with plastic sheeting.

The people in Lebanon are resilient, but they were already suffering so much. 

The country is in the middle of a severe economic and political crisis, on top of the Covid-19 pandemic. One million people are already living below the poverty line with 45% of the Lebanese population sliding into poverty. 

Damage done to the Trócaire office in Beirut
Damage done to the Trócaire office in Beirut

The World Food Programme has said that the combined impact of Lebanon’s economic crisis and Covid-19 lockdown measures on livelihoods and food security revealed that food has become a major source of concern – 50% of Lebanese they spoke to said they felt worried they would not have enough food to eat. 

The Covid-19 pandemic continues to be a huge concern with cases increasing from 2,168 to more than 6,500 cases in the past month.

The explosion has added to these challenges. In addition to the destruction in the city, the explosion destroyed the main port, which is essential for the importation of food and other supplies. 

It also destroyed storehouses containing wheat, which has left many concerned about the general availability of food in the country. 

2,300 hot meals and water were distributed to people in Beirut by Trócaire's local partner, Caritas Lebanon. Photo Caritas/Trócaire
2,300 hot meals and water were distributed to people in Beirut by Trócaire's local partner, Caritas Lebanon. Photo Caritas/Trócaire

A two-week of state of emergency has been announced and there is a palpable sense of despair.

People in Beirut are angry and have taken to the streets to demand answers. 

The entire government has now resigned

While it is unclear what will happen next, and how long it will take to get clear answers on how this explosion happened, we need to get to work right away in responding to the great humanitarian need.

With the help of the Irish public, Trócaire can assist the efforts further by providing food and non-food items, medical care, and support with shelter rehabilitation.

- Alison Heron is Trócaire's Head of Programmes in Beirut, Lebanon

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