Lebanon Summer 2021 was one of sadness, frustration, guilt and even more frustration. News of inflation, poverty, lack of basic services has been going on since the Port Explosion in Beirut on 4th August 2020. Yet determined to see my relatives and the need for some sun and good food, I decided to travel to Lebanon in late July. I am not sure what I was expecting as regular calls to my cousins were filled with depressing news and general low mood.
The summer was dominated with hustling the black market for petrol, news of a possible war, tensions at petrol station, little to no electricity and the downfall of a country once compared to Switzerland. Its hard to pinpoint when it all started and one can go back to the establishment of the Republic in 1943, however some events did signal a looming economic crash and exacerbated the country’s inefficient infrastructure. This post will look at some recent events that accumulated over the past few years which helps explain what has been happening in the tiny country. I hope to follow this up with a post on the deep structural inefficiencies and corruption which has paved way to these crises.
Influx of Refugees
Since 2011, Lebanon has taken in 1.5 million Syrian refugees living among a national population of 4 million and over 400,000 long term refugees from Palestine. The country now has the highest per capita concentration of refugees in the world. Although not a definitive reason for Lebanon’s current problems, the pressure has affected an already fragile economy and poor infrastructure. The influx of refugees has put pressure of Lebanon’s economy, healthcare and housing market.
The waste crisis that started in July 2015 and the mass protests, led by the “you stink” movement, is where the cracks started to appear. The crisis started when a large landfill site closed and the government failed to implement a contingency plan in time to replace it. The Nahemeh landfill opened in 1997 and was only a temporary solution to Lebanon’s waste; it was to receive two million tonnes of rubbish from Beirut and the Mount Lebanon area for only a few years until a comprehensive solution was devised. Fast forward 18 years and the landfill finally closed after it accumulated 15 tonnes of rubbish and many complaints from local residents that it can longer take any more trash. Nahemeh was only supposed to be a temporary landfill, yet after 18 years the government had absolutely no alternative when it shut down, leading to the main waste-management company Sukleen to suspend collecting rubbish. As a result, Lebanon, especially Beirut, was drowned in trash! Bear in mind that this started in heat of the summer, the smell on the streets was unbearable and it became a public health crisis. I remember seeing piles and piles of trash over flowing the bins and all over the sidewalks.
Hands off our WhatsApp!
In 2019 protests erupted when the government announced it was taxing the social media platform WhatsApp, among other commodities. It was the largest protests the country has ever seen in more than a decade; cutting across class, religion and sect. At first, it’s not obvious why people would protest over WhatsApp tax but if you consider all the other factors such as high living costs, the tax was the tipping point. Lebanon has two mobile service companies that monopolize the mobile networks- Alpha and MTC. According to Byblos Bank, the cost of mobile-cellular services in Lebanon is ninth most expensive among Arab countries with the average citizen spending 5% of their monthly income of mobile services. Competition is low and prices are high.
The high prices are at the backdrop of the government’s failure to deal with poor and expensive basic services such as water, electricity and medical care; as well as, high unemployment and rising prices (this will be looked at further in the next post).
August 2019 shocked the country with devastating wildfires that burned through hundreds of hectares of forest over two days. It was described as the country’s worst wildfire event in decades. The government came under fire over the failure to fund the maintenance of three firefighting helicopters, which remained grounded and out of service. Unable to contain and stop the fires the army aircrafts were used and the country had to call for international assistance.
The damage of the wildfires is heart breaking. Hectares of woodland burned to the ground, mass evacuations and the death of a volunteer who tried to stop the fires, while the government was trying to figure out what to do. People took to the streets again calling for the resignation of the government.
Like everywhere else, Lebanon has imposed nationwide lockdowns to curb COVID case. Lebanon’s healthcare system is struggling under the economic collapse with hundreds of healthcare workers migrating in “mass exodus”, unable to work with shortages in staff, basic medical supplies, and pay. Furthermore, the Post of explosion in August 2020, damaged health facilities including four hospitals, putting them largely out of commission.
After the first lockdown the government allowed nightclubs, bars and restaurants to reopen to New Years Eve in 2020 leading to dramatic spikes in cases in the following months.
Poverty has risen due to the economic crash meaning many families cannot afford private healthcare, increasing pressure on the worn-put public health sector. Furthermore, the lockdown has left many with no income. With low medical equipment, workers and medicine the COVID response has been comprised as well as quality healthcare in general. More Lebanese died of Covid-19 in January 2021 than in all of 2020 combined.
Port Explosion August 2020
The August 2020 Port explosion shocked the world with videos and images of people running to safety, hiding under tables and a massive mushroom cloud dominating the city. It was one of the world’s biggest-ever, non-nuclear explosions destroyed much of Beirut’s port and devastated many parts of the capital. The blast was caused by a fire in a warehouse which the Lebanese government admitted to storing tonnes of ammonium nitrate for six years. According to Human Rights Watch, the explosion killed 218 people, and wounded 7,000 people, of whom at least 150 acquired a physical disability. It damaged 77,000 apartments, displacing over 300,000 people and entire neighbourhoods devasted. At least three children between the ages of 2 and 15 lost their lives. Heart-breaking videos appeared of people fleeing the scene, patients hiding under tables in hospitals and dead bodies on the road.
Ammonia gas and nitrogen oxides are harmful to the environment, and is known to cause damage and difficulties in the respiratory system. This happened during the COVID pandemic, adding much more pressure on hospitals and medical workers. The UNDP has calculated the cost of cleaning up the environmental degradation resulting from the explosion at over $100 million, which comes on top of the country’s existing environmental clean-up costs, estimated at $2.35 billion in 2018.
The blast was direct result of government mismanagement and negligence. Why were hazardous chemicals stored at a port for six years? Where did the chemicals come from and why were they stored near populated areas in Beirut? According to some sources, the shipment of ammonium nitrate was to reach Mozambique and departed from Georgia. However, the ship encountered some technical difficulties and docked in Beirut. For six years.
The blast exacerbated the country’s economic crisis, which was long in the making, and still little relief. It led to the resignation of the prime minister and his government, leaving he county without a government for 13 months. 10 August 2020, the authorities referred the investigation to the Judicial Council. More than one year on, political elites and authorities are still arguing over the appointment of judges, obstructing victims and survivors right to justice, accountability and remedy.