Beirut Blast: A Wake-Up Call to Build Back a Better Lebanon

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06 November 2020
Beirut Blast: A Wake-Up Call to Build Back a Better Lebanon Mar Mikhael, Lebanon. Photo by Nadine Abi Zeid Daou

 “The Beirut port explosion was an explosion of hearts… This explosion burnt our hearts”, said Farah, a 40-year-old woman who came with her son to express her frustrations and share her hopes about a bleak future. “I lost many friends,” her 9-year old son added at a small UN booth created in one of the most damaged streets by the horrendous Beirut explosions.


On August 4, a warehouse at the Beirut Port exploded, causing the death of over 200 people and leaving thousands injured with unprecedented material damage. The colossal explosions sent a mushroom cloud into the air and a blastwave that radiated through the city, levelling building right next to the port and turning houses into rubbles.


When the disaster struck the heart of Beirut, Lebanon was already reeling from civil unrest, economic and financial hardship, increasing poverty and unemployment compounded by political tensions and a soaring number of COVID-19 cases. This has been further exacerbated by the heavy burden of Syrian and Palestine refugees.  


“Two months after the devastating explosions, the scale of the loss and magnitude of damage remains massive, even overwhelming,” said Deputy Special Coordinator, Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator, Najat Rochdi. “As I walk around Beirut every day, I listen to stories of shock and of loss. Women and men who have never had to ask for help, now reduced to handouts. Families who have had their homes and futures blown away. Children who no longer feel safe in their neighborhoods. Proud businesspeople who cannot access their savings, unable to start again,” she added. 


On the ground, following the night of the blast, UN entities and partners, including national and international NGOs, as well as volunteers and local communities, have swung into action. “They are sparing no time nor effort to provide life-saving assistance to those who were directly affected by this horrendous blast,” declared Rochdi. 


In fact, the support provided right after the blast by the UN agencies operating in Lebanon, including WFP, UNICEF, WHO, UNDP, UN-Habitat, UNHCR, UNIFIL and others, covered a myriad of services that helped meet the immediate needs of people. Essential medicines and medical supplies, water, sanitation and hygiene services, psychological support, rehabilitation and restoration works were duly provided in no time. 


Since day one, humanitarian partners have been delivering assistance, prioritizing those most in need and most vulnerable. As of end of September, for example, 47,500 individuals out of approximately 152,000 targeted were reached with protection services; 92,000 hot and ready-to-eat meals were distributed, and 44,000 households were assisted with food parcels. Equally important, 12,500 metric tons of wheat flour were distributed to millers across the country, covering 80% of affected stocks stored at the Port and helping keep the weight of one bread bag at 1kg. WASH services were also provided to medical facilities, including water trucking to damaged hospitals. Over 2,700 new water tanks and pumps were installed, helping cover 50% of the known WASH needs to be met in the coming months.



While continuing the provision of humanitarian assistance to those in need, the UN’s response is however slightly shifting gears, moving from immediate life-saving assistance towards medium-term interventions that will pave the way for longer-term recovery and reconstruction. “The port explosions served as a wake-up call but also as a window of opportunity to build back a better Lebanon. This is a once in a generation opportunity to deliver real change for Lebanon and its people,” said Rochdi.


Indeed, real change has become the UN’s main concern amid Lebanon’s interdependent and multi-faceted crises. Based on the findings of a Rapid Damage and Needs Assessment that the UN along with European Union and the World Bank produced in August to help support an evidence-based recovery planning, the three entities embarked on the development of a people-centered Reform, Recovery and Reconstruction Framework – the 3RF- that presents real solutions to the very real problems facing Lebanon. 


“The 3RF provides the opportunity to restore people’s hope for a brighter future. It provides a vision for Lebanon to build back better, a plan to prevent Lebanon from sliding into a full-scale humanitarian catastrophe,” explained Rochdi, noting that the framework prioritizes the needs of the people, particularly the poor and the most vulnerable.
Through a principled approach to reforms, recovery and reconstruction, the UN is keen on ensuring that the values of the United Nations are upheld throughout the recovery process. “This means that we are not solely focusing on rebuilding Beirut and ignoring the Lebanese who are living in poverty elsewhere in the country. On the contrary, we have committed to ‘Leave No One Behind’ and we shall deploy every effort to ensure that marginalized group are not excluded or marginalized from this recovery process. These people are at the heart of Lebanon’s inclusive recovery!” declared Rochdi.


Few days after the blast, multinational UN staff members from all 24 UN agencies operating in Lebanon, embarked on a #UN4Beirut initiative organized by the UN staff unions in Lebanon, to clean up glass, debris and rubble from the bomb-stricken streets and help vulnerable people clear their damaged houses. UN staffers were still under the shock of the explosions that took the lives of three dependents and injured many of them, but this did not discourage them from engaging, with their family members and friends, in this cleaning initiative to demonstrate solidarity with the citizens of Beirut. 


“Beirut is ours and we should stand by our people amidst this humanitarian crisis. One small shovel can bring a change and can help people recover at a very fast pace,” said Mohamad Saleh, Programme Officer at UNICEF, before he joined over 200 staff members who hovered in groups the devastated streets of Beirut. 


“I thought today is the day I was going to die” said young man Rakan who was overwhelmed by memories of how the explosions crushed his house, leaving him badly injured on his feet. “I fear that another similar thing might happen again,” young Roula said, jumping at every small sound erupting from the street, shivering from the possibility of witnessing another horrific blast that took the life of her father. 


Rakan and Roula were interviewed by a representative of the UN Communication Group who joined the street of Mar Mikhael one week after the blast, where a booth was established and welcomed over 20 persons from different age groups and backgrounds who were directly affected by the Blast, to share their frustrations & pain but also to share their hopes for the future they want. 


These interviews were compiled in a short compelling video that reached, in less than a week, over 700,000 viewers on UN Lebanon social media platforms. The video is only one activity of many others planned by UNCG under an integrated communication campaign to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the UN and influence change towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).


“We are staying in Lebanon despite everything,” concluded one of the interviewees.