Site of the 2020 Beirut Port Explosion

Site of the 2020 Beirut Port Explosion

Source: Background map from Google Earth. Image, February 2020.

The storage of hazardous materials in port areas represents a recurrent risk. On August 4, 2020, about 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate (used for making fertilizers or explosives) stored in a dockside warehouse in the port of Beirut, Lebanon, exploded, resulting in one of the largest non-nuclear blasts in history. Within 1 km of the blast, most of the frontside area of the port was fully or partially destroyed. This included a major grain elevator directly adjacent to the site of the explosion, which held substantial grain reserves. The impacts of the blast were compounded by a serious reduction in the availability of grain for the Lebanese food supply system.

The ammonium nitrate that caused the explosion was seized from an abandoned cargo ship in 2014 and stored under inadequate conditions. The risk was further exacerbated by the inability of the customs authority to sell the chemicals on the global or national markets, as the issue was mired in delayed legal decisions to release the cargo. The inability of the legal system to respond to requests from the customs led to a vacuum where no action became the default.

Like many ports, the port of Beirut is mainly located in an area immediately adjacent to high density central urban areas. In addition to several port facilities, thousands of buildings were destroyed or damaged, killing more than 200 people and leaving another 300,000 homeless and in need to find housing alternatives in a city that has seen its infrastructures stressed by influxes of refugees from the Syrian Civil War. The economic vitality of the area, a major commercial, touristic and residential nexus has been seriously compromised.

The Beirut Container Terminal, which handled 1.3 million TEU in 2017, suffered minor damages and was closed for about one week until operations started to resume on August 14. Still, about half the traffic handled by the port of Beirut concerns transshipment traffic, which can be diverted to other hubs such as Haifa or Piraeus. The port authority will lose substantial revenue while having to deal with large capital investments to repair or rebuild port facilities. The resilience of Beirut as a transshipment hub will be tested in the coming years.