Bomb disposal expert urges government funding to safeguard explosive stockpiles

After Beirut's devestating explosions, landmine clearance charity Halo warns the Middle East is a particular area of concern for unsafe storage of explosives

TOPSHOT - A Lebanese army soldier walks amidst the debris at Beirut port on August 7, 2020, three days after a massive blast there shook the Lebanese capital. The explosion of a huge pile of ammonium nitrate that had languished for years in a port warehouse served as shocking proof to many Lebanese of the rot at the core of their system, with seething anti-government protests erupting late Thursday near parliament. World leaders have joined the chorus of Lebanese in the country and abroad demanding an international probe into a blast that killed nearly 150 and wounded at least 5,000 people. At least 300,000 were left temporarily homeless, including nearly 80,000 children, the United Nations' child agency has said, warning that many have been separated from their families. / AFP / JOSEPH EID
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Governments need to provide more funding to prevent catastrophes such as the Beirut port blasts by making explosive stockpiles safe, a leading bomb disposal expert has said.

The Middle East is a particular area for concern with massive arsenals of hazardous materials such as ammonium nitrate and ammunition, warned Simon Conway of Halo, the landmine clearance charity.

The region has a huge amount of bombs, ammunition and explosives left over from the Cold War that are becoming increasingly unstable.

There are also concerns that worldwide many cities harbour dangerous arsenals that could blow up, causing devastation similar to that witnessed in Lebanon this week.

French rescuers work in Beirut's Gemayzeh neighbourhood, damaged by a blast in the Lebanese capital's port three days earlier, that ravaged entire neighbourhoods and left scores of people dead or injured.  / AFP / JOSEPH EID

"If we spend more money on prevention we would not have to spend so much money after these events and fewer people would die," Mr Conway told The National.

“In the last decade there have been more than 240 ‘unplanned explosion’ events that have claimed hundreds of lives.

“The impact is similar to the effects of an earthquake with deaths, mass injuries and people made homeless overnight. More needs to be done to prevent this so we need a mixture of foreign aid and for states to open up about this problem.”

In the past 24 hours Mr Conway, 53, has been contacted by the Philippine government about concerns over a huge Second World War ammunition dump in the middle of Manila Bay that is next to a major shipping lane and airport.

A picture taken on August 7, 2020, shows a view of destroyed grain silos amid the devastation in the port of Beirut, the site of a massive blast which shook the Lebanese capital. Three days after the monster explosion that disfigured the city in a matter of seconds, the clock was already ticking down on any potential survivors' chances, as rescuers from Lebanon, France, Germany, Russia and other countries worked shifts to try to find an entrance to a control room buried under metres (yards) of rubble.
 / AFP / -

There is also a stockpile of 200 aircraft bombs in a garage in the middle of Guinea-Bissau’s capital that poses a major risk to 11,000 residents.

But it is the Middle East that has the most unexploded ordnance, both ammonium nitrate from stores and terrorist stockpiles and bombs.

Mr Conway said more pressure needed to be put on countries to do a full audit of their stockpiles.

“There is so much weaponry left over from the Cold War, that the Middle East is swamped with Soviet and American ammunition,” he said.

Mr Conway, who was in Brazzaville, Congo, when an ammonium nitrate blast killed 500 people, listed the cities of Mosul, Aleppo, Sirte, Benghazi and Tripoli as major areas of concern.

“Without this issue being urgently addressed other Beiruts will happen. Yemen, Libya, Syria and Iraq and Russia are the countries most affected by unexploded stores. It really is a serious problem in the Middle East.”

“There also needs to be a major effort to clear the huge number of IEDs [Improvised Explosive Devices] and we need to be more effective at clearing rubble in cities where there’s a lot of IEDs buried under rubble," he added.

He has been in negotiations with the British Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) to release more funding for explosiveds disposal.

The FCO currently spends £100 million to fund the issue, with about £30 million given to the Halo Trust, which was prominently supported by Princess Diana before her death.

“We’re engaging with the FCO to see if they can look at this more globally,” he said.

Mr Conway, 53, a former army captain, has worked for more than three decades in explosive ordnance disposal, from Cambodia, to Georgia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and across the Middle East. He is also the author of six thriller novels.

He believes that the Beirut explosion was potentially caused by fireworks or ammunition that was stored next to the sacks of ammonium nitrate.

“These plastic sacks would have absorbed moisture from the sea air and clumped together but it would have taken intense heat to set them off," he said.

"From the explosion you can see a three cloud phase. Grey-white, then reddish brown then a big white mushroom cloud from the water vapour. The first cloud had sheets of flame with lots of dots of light, which were either fireworks or ammunition going off, which then set off the ammonium nitrate. It was a bit like putting a detonator next to a bomb."

The death toll from Tuesday’s blast in Beirut has risen to 154 with a further 120 people in a critical condition. More than 5,000 people were wounded and 300,000 left homeless.