A series of small, silly mistakes, bureaucratic indifference and greed over a period of time can lead to deadly disasters of huge proportions.
In Lebanon, this happened on Tuesday when a blast sent black, orange mushroom clouds high up in the air and a powerful shock wave in all directions, destroying everything in its path — port structures, shipping containers and residential buildings, leaving around 300,000 homeless, thousands injured and scores dead.
A deadly cargo of highly unstable ammonium nitrate used for manufacturing fertilisers and commercial explosives originated in Georgia in September 2013 and arrived at Beirut port two months later.
What happened in Beirut is a textbook example of bureaucratic and judicial negligence with terrifying consequences. The catastrophe is also a lesson for other global ports where vessels laden with dangerous cargo routinely enter and exit busy shipping lanes in proximity to densely populated cities
It arrived on a vessel flying Moldavian flag and the cargo was purchased for a commercial manufacturer of explosives in Mozambique. For a number of reasons, the consignment ended up in a storage facility, waiting to blow up the capital of Lebanon, a nation that neither owned the decaying vessel nor the cargo.
The vessel had docked at Beirut port only to pick up a consignment of old machinery as the ship owner wanted to earn extra cash.
For almost seven years, sacks of ammonium nitrate sat in Hanger 12 as port, customs and courts discussed the fate of the vessel impounded for failing to pay docking charges which were never recovered. Instead, on August 4, the people of the city paid a heavy price when some human error, perhaps, sparked a fire in the warehouse.
The magnitude of negligence by Lebanese officials cannot be overstated. From the enforcement officials who collect docking charges to customs authorities whose job is to screen deadly cargo to judges in the Lebanese courts, the chain of accountability will be very long when investigators fix responsibility for the disaster. While a full investigation will take some time, preliminary enquiries blamed “inaction and negligence”.
Textbook example of bureaucratic complacency
What happened in Beirut is a textbook example of bureaucratic and judicial negligence with terrifying consequences. The catastrophe is also a lesson for other global ports where vessels laden with dangerous cargo routinely enter and exit busy shipping lanes in proximity to densely populated cities. In this disaster, beyond the scope of Lebanese investigators lies a big role of international authorities.
The International Maritime Organisation, a London-based United Nations body that regulates global shipping trade must also step in and relook at the movement of dangerous chemicals via sea.
The agency should investigate how 2,700 tonnes of ammonium nitrate was allowed to sail on a single decaying vessel from Georgia. Shady operators are known to subvert safety rules and risk lives of shipping crew by accepting to transport dangerous chemicals. The shipping industry and its regulator cannot shirk responsibility from Beirut disaster.