On August 4, at least 2700 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, a chemical fertiliser also used to make bombs, exploded in the Beirut seaport, killing more than 150 people and wounding thousands. It was impounded in 2014 from an unseaworthy ship and unsafely stored at the port. Many Lebanese officials were informed of the fact that the explosive chemical had been stored at the port, yet they did nothing to dispose of it safely.
Nearly 3,000 kilometres to the south, in Yemen, another ticking time bomb sits in another seaport. In Hodeidah, an oil tanker has been in the hands of the Houthi rebels since the beginning of the conflict, in 2015. The FSO Safer has had almost no maintenance work or repairs, although it carries 1.1 million barrels of oil. The risk of oil spilling from the vessel, into which seawater is seeping, increases by the day. A spill would be catastrophic for the region's marine life. It would disrupt trade and deprive thousands of fishermen of their livelihoods. The oil could also explode, putting lives at risk.
Although the ship belongs to the Yemeni government, the Houthis wish to sell the oil, which was valued as high as $40 million before prices took a nosedive. The Iran-backed rebel militia long prevented the UN from inspecting the ship in order to assess the damage and make small repairs, despite repeated requests to do so since 2015. Last month, the Houthis agreed in principle to let the UN inspect the ship, but such permission has been granted in the past only to be revoked at the very last minute. And in all cases, access should have been granted years ago.
In Aden, reports have emerged of nearly 5,000 tonnes of ammonium nitrate lying abandoned in the city's port for the past three years. The government has denied the existence of this highly hazardous material, but concerns are high among residents of the city. Yemen's attorney general Ali Ahmed Al Awash has ordered prosecutors to launch a swift investigation into these claims, but as the tragedy in Beirut shows, time is of the essence. Authorities must act to either secure any such materials, or end rumours about them so that the people of Yemen have one less danger to worry about.
In Iraq, meanwhile, authorities appear to be taking stock of Lebanon’s devastating blasts to better protect the population. Baghdad announced on Thursday that an emergency committee had been set up to create an inventory of hazardous materials stockpiled in airports and ports, to prevent a repeat of the Beirut explosions.
In a region that has long been rife with wars and corruption, the Beirut blasts should serve as a wake-up call for leaders of conflict-stricken nations. It is not only armed conflict that can destroy cities and lead to a mass loss of life. Incompetence and negligence can also wreak havoc on the region’s people.