How the Beirut Blast Pushes Lebanon Over the Humanitarian Brink

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Background on the Aug. 4 Beirut Blast

The Beirut death count from the Tuesday mega-blast of 2,750 tons of ignited ammonium nitrate leapt in a day to 135 — a number sure to rise — with casualties exceeding 5,000 and a staggering 300,000 left instantly homeless.

But already teetering on the edge of famine, plagued by surging COVID-19 infections, and still reeling from widespread protests for economic justice against government corruption, Lebanon’s beleaguered now stand helpless beneath a cascade of onrushing humanitarian crises.

564,000 children and 346,000 adults in the greater Beirut area lack food and basic essentials.

Even before the devastating explosion, Lebanon faced the worst economic crisis in its history, according to the UN’s World Food Program (WFP):

  • 20% of Lebanese families miss meals or go without food for a day

  • 30% of its 1.5 million Syrian refugees skip meals or do not eat for a day

  • 35%-45% spike in unemployment due to coronavirus economic depression

  • 50% of Lebanon’s 4.7 million citizens fear food shortage

  • 63% of its 400,000 Palestinian refugees fear food shortage

  • 66% of Lebanese households suffered economic loss due to the pandemic

  • 75% of Syrian refugees fear food shortage

  • 83% of Syrian refugees barely survive on $2.90 per day, abject poverty

  • 85% drop in families’ purchasing power since October 2019 from inflation

  • 169% food and rent costs jump since September 2019

The blast’s humanitarian devastation

  • 4 major hospitals destroyed

  • Underfunded public hospitals near collapse

  • Vaccine supply for the nation destroyed

  • Emergency medication supply for the nation destroyed

  • 85% of grain supply for the nation contaminated (Lebanon imports at least 90% of its grain supply for bread and 80% of all other foods)

  • Beirut port (entry point for 80% of its food imports) destroyed

  • Electricity supply severely damaged

Life-and-death days lie in the months ahead

Lebanon has the highest per capita refugee ratio in the world. These families already struggle for food, as the preceding statistics show. High-nutrition foods, like lentils and labneh (a highly concentrated yogurt), stave off starvation. Vegetable and fruit availability is rare. Meat — at $33 a kilo (2.2 lbs.), up 300% from $11 in October — a few can purchase by the gram. For most, it is unthinkable.

This food insecurity has increasingly spread among the entire Lebanese population since October 2019. The Aug. 4 blast (75 years to the day of the atom bomb drop on Hiroshima) means that 75% of Lebanon’s people — citizens and refugees — will now survive only on “food handouts,” according to Food Security Program Professor Martin Keulertz at American University of Beirut.

This raises a crucial question: Will there be food to hand out?

“Surely in the next few months we will see a very grave scenario in which people will be starving and people will die from hunger and the knock-on effects of starvation,” Keulertz said.

Look at the current exorbitant food prices for a family of four, which used to buy 10 days of food at the prices listed, but now can purchase just two days of nutrition for the same costs:

  • Milk: $33

  • Rice: $10

  • Sugar: $8

At $2.90 a day — the amount most Syrian refugees get paid, and considered by the UN the bare minimum for survival — that is 17.5 days’ pay for these basic staples, which now feed a family of four for a mere two days. That’s a calculus of starvation.

Mercy in the Mirror of Lebanon

Food security, according to the UN’s World Food Program, rests on two pillars: (1) Sufficient food in the country (growing and/or importing it) and (2) people having the money to buy it.

Lebanon’s people — citizens and refugees — have neither. The Aug. 4 blast blew both these pillars, already crumbling in Lebanon, to utter disintegration.

Beirut, long a destination of indulgence for the world’s wealthy, and especially those from the resource-rich Arabian Gulf, now hosts winding lines of people waiting days for food aid or just bread, or sifting through trash bins for something to sustain life.

Without food help, the people of Lebanon will starve to death.

Crowd them into that shamefully thronging looking glass of haggard faces and exploded places looking back at us. Once again, in Lebanon, our humanity hangs in the balance.