Tripoli, Lebanon – On August 4, several ships crossed the Mediterranean towards the port of Beirut to unload shipments of wheat, medicines and steel, among others.
But when the clock struck at 6:08 pm in Lebanon, a huge explosion at the now infamous Hangar 12 in the Port of Beirut sent strong shock waves across the sea. They were felt as far as Cyprus.
Caused by the detonation of nearly 3,000 tons of unsecured ammonium nitrate, the explosion created what many describe as an apocalypse, wreaking unprecedented havoc in the city. In a flash, thousands of buildings were destroyed, at least 180 residents were killed and around 6,000 people were injured.
At sea, port authorities and shipowners quickly communicated with their captains, directing them further north along the Lebanese coast towards the port of Tripoli.
For more than a week, ships carrying goods to Lebanon – a country that imports about 80% of what it consumes – docked in Tripoli instead of Beirut.
With the port of Beirut receiving 70% of all the country’s imports before the incident, many observers expected the small port of Tripoli to falter.
But the northern port, known for its vital role as a transit point for maritime trade to Iraq and Syria, stepped in fully for Beirut, assuming a vital economic role for the country.
The swift response and efficient flow of goods to Tripoli saved Lebanon from a looming food crisis, Tripoli port authorities said, and kept the already struggling economy of the small Mediterranean country afloat.
From August 4 to 12, the port of Tripoli became the main destination for ships carrying general cargo and containers carrying everything from food, medicine and building materials to Lebanon.
“The port of Tripoli was only operating at 40% of its capacity before the incident,” said Ahmad Tamer, director general of the port of Tripoli, explaining that years of political instability in the region – and more recently the pandemic coronavirus – had significantly slowed the economy.
“And so when the explosion hit, we were more than capable of replacing Beirut,” he said.
He added that the reorientation of Lebanese imports to Tripoli has ensured that Lebanon does not suffer from hunger.
With around 85 percent of Lebanon’s wheat supply usually passing through the port of Beirut, the United Nations food program had predicted the country would run out of bread two and a half weeks after the explosion.
But it was not. “Everyone expected a wheat crisis, but we filled in and received the mailings,” Tamer said.
Tamer explained that although the port of Tripoli is relatively smaller than that of Beirut, its “logistics infrastructure and services” were sufficiently advanced to enable it to handle the instantaneous increase in the volume of goods.
While Tripoli’s receipt of the majority of Lebanese imports was only required for a short period, Tamer said he had the capacity to take on the role of Beirut’s replacement “for several months” rather than a week “, without any compromise on quality. services ” .
About 10 days after the explosion, which destroyed the port of Beirut and much of the city, the facility was relatively back on its feet and capable of taking back most of the containers it had previously received.
According to Hassan Dannoui, acting president and general manager of the Tripoli Special Economic Zone, as vessels carrying containers have returned to Beirut, the majority of cargoes and bulk shipments continue to dock at the port of Tripoli.
“We are back to roughly the same situation before the explosion, except that the volume of goods going to Tripoli is higher,” Dannoui said.
According to Tamer, the port manager: “Before the explosion Tripoli took 50-60% of all general cargo coming into Lebanon, but now we get 80-90%. “
Ports typically move materials, for import and export, through two main freight terminals – the conventional freight terminal, which specializes in bulk cargo such as wheat, grain, building materials; or a container terminal that handles goods shipped inside steel containers.
Unlike freight, goods imported in containers generally do not require additional storage facilities at the port.
According to 2019 figures, the carrying capacity of the Port of Beirut in containers was at least 1.3 million, while that of Tripoli was around 300,000-400,000. Estimates provided by the two ports indicate that Tripoli and Beirut have a similar capacity for freight.
Although the cargo terminal is important, it is considered commercial and strategically less valuable to the container terminal.
Back to Beirut
“The Port of Beirut is 100% back,” Bassem el-Kaissi, director general of the Port of Beirut, told Al Jazeera, explaining that a task force had cleared the port’s docks and repaired cranes and other equipment. to allow the return of most containers.
El-Kaissi was appointed on August 11 after an arrest warrant was issued against the former port manager, Hassan Koraytem, in connection with the explosion investigation.
He said that while the loading, unloading and transport of goods have returned to normal, storage at the Port of Beirut remains the main problem after the destruction of 21 warehouses.
Despite the destruction, the workflow has been relatively smooth at the Port of Beirut, according to businessmen and customs officials.
Bassem Bawab, owner of an import company in Lebanon, said that although the flow of goods is now slower than before the explosion, the work has been rather efficient.
“The process of getting our goods out of the port and to our own warehouses is taking more time and money than before because the administrative offices have been affected,” Bawab said. “Otherwise, the job went well. “
Because Bawab only uses containers to transport its goods and has its own warehouses in the city, the ships carrying its goods returned to Beirut as soon as it was operational again.
And unlike other freight companies that might need storage, it was not affected by the fact that the Port of Beirut lost its free zone and storage facilities in the explosion.
“Businesses that need storage have to pay more for storage outside the port,” Bawab said.
Another service affected by the explosion at the Port of Beirut is Customs, which was transferred to Rafic Hariri Airport in Beirut after the explosion.
According to Wael Kabbani, partner of a company specializing in customs clearance at the port and airports of Lebanon, although the lack of administrative buildings at the port makes customs clearance a bit longer, the process went smoothly due to the smaller volume of imports. passing through Beirut.
“The effects of the explosion were not huge because the economy had contracted for several months,” Kabbani said. “The volume of cargo that we clear since the start of 2020 has been around 60 to 70 percent less than before. ”
An internal assessment by the Beirut Port Authority on August 27 indicated that the damage from the blast will take up to a year and $ 1 billion to repair, el-Kaissi said.
While many hailed the port of Beirut’s swift return to operation, others believe more needs to be done to ensure those responsible for the explosion are held accountable.
According to Bassel Salloukh, associate professor of political science at the Lebanese American University, the port of Beirut in many ways embodied the political economy of corruption and sectarianism in post-civil war Lebanon.
“The way the sectarian system invites lack of accountability, lack of transparency and corruption… these elements put together led to the explosion in Beirut,” he said.
Lebanese economic journalist Mohamed Wehbe agreed. “The structure of the Port of Beirut is modeled and reflects the denominational system of the country.
“It was created to represent the political and economic groups which acquired and maintained their financial power after the civil war,” he added.
Judge Fadi Sawan, a forensic investigator, has issued at least 25 arrest warrants as part of an ongoing investigation into the explosion.
None of the politicians when chemicals had been stored at the port since 2013 were interviewed.