Beirut explosion


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When the global community abandons ship

On 4 August 2020, more than 200 people lost their lives and more than 6,000 were injured when a massive explosion of ammonium nitrate destroyed much of the port area of Beirut.

However, the questions of how the ammonium nitrate ended up in the port of Beirut in the first place and why such hazardous material was stored inappropriately explains why Beirut is about more than one human tragedy: it is about lack of accountability in a global value chain, which − in the case of sea transport − leads to a poorly regulated shipping industry. All around the world, ships are abandoned once they become unprofitable, for example because they break down or are held by port authorities following safety inspections. The lack of binding international law enables ship operators to register their holdings in countries with ‘open registries’, which allows ships to fly a flag without having a connection to the chosen nationality. As a result, a majority of all vessels worldwide are registered in countries with the lowest fees and security standards, and fly so-called ‘flags of convenience’, allowing them to circumvent regulations and responsibility.

Key Facts

2,750 tons

of ammonium nitrate detonated.

$3.8-4.6 billion

damage to the physical infrastructure alone


people homeless


deaths (+6,000 injured)

In the case of the Beirut explosion, a cargo ship carrying ammonium nitrate was abandoned in the port in 2013, and the explosive cargo was eventually brought to shore and incorrectly stored next to explosives in Beirut’s harbour in a densely populated area for more than six years. Deeply rooted corruption and a weak governance structure contributed to a lack of action by those responsible.

The explosion then affected a population which was already suffering under an over-stretched health care sector, struggling economy and the challenges of COVID-19, costing precious human lives and leaving behind traumatized families and communities. Following the explosion, COVID-19 cases spiked in Beirut, further stretching already scarce resources in the health sector. These abandonments are not only dangerous from the human rights perspective of the abandoned crews, but also because of the leftover fuel, hazardous cargoes and unattended ships that pose further risk for humans and the environment alike. The Beirut tragedy proves just how much disaster risk they carry.

Wider context

Since the assassination of former president Hariri, political instability has remained. The conflict in Syria starting in 2011 has led to an economic downturn and an influx of more than 1 million refugees into Lebanon (now refugees account for nearly 30 per cent of the population). Currently, Lebanon is facing a financial crisis which increased strongly in 2019.

Future context

Further issues of safety and security for ship operators and port areas will emerge as issues of regulation and enforcement continue to go unaddressed. Human security demands strong international cooperation and taking responsibility.

Between 2004 and 2018 the ILO registered 400 separate incidents of cargo ship abandonments with crew members on board.

Root Causes

Cases where maximizing profit is prioritized over other social concerns, increasing risk

Lack of coherent national/global governance, unregulated exploitation of low and middle-income countries, limited governmental capacity

A lack of perception, awareness or preparation in governance relating to risk management and response


Absence or ineffective enforcement of regulations connected to other risk drivers


Even those surviving disasters or tipping point impacts when they occur can be at risk of short- and long-term health impacts cascading from pollution, damage of critical infrastructure, livelihood disruption or other consequences of systems being affected

Tipping point impacts and disasters can force people to move from their homes due to the loss of shelter, livelihoods or the risk of further incidents occurring. People may be temporarily displaced or urged to migrate to other areas

Disasters cause fatalities both when they occur and in the aftermath with cascading effects on physical and mental health

Public and private structures and systems can be affected by disasters and risk tipping points impacts, from homes and properties to physical assets critical for providing health services, transport, food, water, communications and more

Reduction of people’s ability to support themselves or their family, both temporarily or permanently, is an impact that is interconnected with many others, including health and food security

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