Events Leading Up to Beirut Explosion Not Exceptional: Researchers
The tragedy calls to attention the tremendous consequences of a lack of port security around the world.
At the time of writing, at least 137 people have lost their lives and a further 4,000 have been wounded following an . While the actual cause remains uncertain, the tragedy calls to attention the tremendous consequences of a lack of port security.
The explosion, on 4 August, at around 6 pm local time, appears to have been fuelled by 2,750 tons of the highly reactive chemical . The chemical had been the cargo on a ship, the the MV Rhosus, which entered the port at Beirut due to a lack of seaworthiness and was prohibited from sailing. After the ship’s owner abandoned the vessel soon afterwards, the ammonium nitrate remained in a storage facility in Beirut’s port.
While the disaster itself was exceptional, the events leading up to it were not. Hazardous material is shipped across the world’s oceans on a daily basis. It is often mishandled or illegally traded. Abandoned containers of hazardous goods are found regularly in ports.
While maritime security tends to focus on preventing high-profile events such as piracy, terrorism or cyber-attacks, all too often it is daily mishandling that makes disasters possible. Part of preventing disasters such as what has happened in Beirut will mean strengthening port management and addressing crimes such as smuggling and corruption.
The International Maritime Organization (IMO) has of abandoned ships and crews since 2017. Ships are abandoned by their owners if a vessel is no longer lucrative to maintain, or perhaps if the ship has been stopped by authorities and fined. While the situation of the , as they may receive little pay or for months, what happens to the load of the vessels is often unclear.
And the IMO number only reflects the cases of ships – we know little about how many containers stand abandoned in ports around the world.
A UN report indicates . Containers often lie abandoned within ports, sometimes even by design, fuelled by criminal activities such as waste smuggling and corruption. Despite some efforts to counter this, the issue remains widespread and there are continued obstacles to tackling it.
International Waste Trade
This has facilitated a burgeoning waste trade and with it a smuggling sector, where illegal forms of waste such as unrecyclable plastics are shipped from western countries to countries such as and . Thousands of these containers once they reach the port.
In 2019, more than 100 abandoned containers in the port of Colombo. They contained clinical waste, potentially including human remains, and were leaking fluids. The risk that the containers had contaminated the ground and surface water in the two years they had lay in port unnoticed fuelled public health concerns. Sri Lanka has been able to investigate this problem – but it is likely that, in many cases, abandonment goes undiscovered.
The abandonment of dangerous containers in ports is not a new problem. Since the 2000s there have been significant through surveillance, training and safety protocols. In light of the continuing abandonment problem, we know that these measures – and their implementation – are insufficient.
First, we have to start seeing the smuggling of waste and the abandoning of ships and containers as major offences. They should be seen as important parts of the . Appropriate legislation is needed to criminalise them. An international database for such crimes is required, as is transnational cooperation to address them.
Finally, increased efforts in building the capacity of ports to deal with hazardous waste, to detect smuggling and to deal with abandonment cases are needed. In particular, this will be necessary for ports which have limited resources and are common destinations for abandoned containers, such as ports in Asia and Africa.
Beirut has shown us the kind of impact a port disaster can have on a city and its inhabitants. Lessons must be learned to make sure a tragedy like this does not happen again.
(This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article here.)
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