Since the explosion in Beirut I’ve listened repeatedly to the song Ya Beirut (Oh Beirut) by the Lebanese diva Majida al-Roumi, while obsessively reading the news and checking on extended family members – like any other expatriate Lebanese.
The song, which was originally a poem by the Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani, describes the city as it emerged from the civil war. The poet/singer apologises to the city for misunderstanding it, for maltreating it and calls on Beirut to “rise from beneath the rubble”. Yet the line that struck me the most, that echoed within me was “we now know that your roots are deep within us”. That was an epiphany, as I always thought I hated Beirut.
I first came to know Beirut in the fall of 1988 as a student at the American University of Beirut (AUB). I had not turned 18 yet and came to study English literature as books had been my only friends growing up. They offered me an escape from the realities of the civil war. Jane Austen, Honoré de Balzac, Fyodor Dostoyevsky and others gave me a window into other worlds when bombs fell and bullets sang around us. I was excited to start a new life in a city where I could reinvent myself. Beirut destroyed all my dreams.
Soon after the end of my first semester at AUB in 1989, Michel Aoun, the current president of Lebanon, then head of a military government, began his “war of liberation” against Syria. The western side of Beirut where the university is located was shelled and we were forced to evacuate.
Upon our return following the Ta’if agreement which ended the civil war and sent Aoun into exile in Paris, we resumed our studies. The spring semester of 1990 was crammed into the next academic year, and we undertook an intensive course of study to graduate on time.
I came to hate with passion every moment I spent on the AUB campus and could not wait to leave Beirut, a city I had come to revile after all the years of turmoil. My acceptance for an MA in English literature at the University of London was the initial step in a long trajectory that took me to Paris, Berlin, the US and now Sweden.
Over the following decades, I switched from studying literature to Middle Eastern politics. After growing up in Lebanon during the civil war, I needed to tease apart in an intellectual and systematic manner the events that I sleepwalked through using literature as a crutch. The resulting book Pax Syriana allowed me to clarify (if only in my own mind) the role of political elites not only in the war, but also in the postwar era.
These political elites were mainly warlords who “recycled themselves” as politicians. They were rich tycoons who had made their money abroad, military men and members of the militant group Hezbollah. Lebanon, and specifically Beirut, was a virgin territory where these people could enrich themselves and their cronies.
Clientelism has always been a characteristic of Lebanese politics but it evolved into grand corruption in the postwar period. Graft was rampant in key sectors of the economy, including transport, healthcare, energy, natural resources, construction, waste management and social assistance programmes.
The Lebanese rose up in October 2019 against this political malfeasance, demanding the fall of the sectarian regime. They called for the removal of Michael Aoun, who had returned to Lebanon in 2005 after his exile in France and became president in 2016.
The economy decimated, Lebanon was falling apart at the seams. Then came the August 4 explosion in the Beirut port, and the medical, economic and social catastrophe took on gargantuan proportions. The dead have not been counted yet, as many are still under the rubble, but over 5,000 are wounded. More than 300,000 are said to be homeless.
The explosion is said to be due to 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate confiscated in 2013 and improperly stored since then in the port. The chemical was to be auctioned or somehow disposed of, but that never happened. Its storage near residential areas was a disaster in waiting.
The Beirut port is a key node in the Lebanese transport sector and the import-dependent economy moves most of its imports through it, including the majority of foodstuffs. However, as a port employee has noted, “corruption at the port is a rule” and while Hezbollah controls it, all Lebanese politicians have interests in this crucial transportation hub. This therefore appears to be a case of criminal negligence on the part of every single Lebanese politician, but especially all the governments that have been in power since 2013.
While writing these words, I find myself choking with a strange mixture of relief and pain. The relief is the knowledge that I have escaped Lebanon – that I saw through the mirage of the postwar period and refused to go back to a failing state. I feel strangely justified in every single decision I took in the past decades.
But my heart is also bleeding for a city I thought I hated. I hurt for the youth of Lebanon stuck in a hell without hope of escape. I read the words that Hamed Sinno, the lead singer of the Lebanese band Mashrou’ Leila, posted on his Facebook page and I weep:
Beirut I hate you so much for making me leave. I hate you for everything you’ve taken from me … I hate you so much for finding a way to punish me when I’m not even there. Beirut I hate you as much as I hate myself for still belonging to you.
I have an inkling what this feeling stuck in my craw is: it is survivor guilt. I survived Lebanon and Beirut but my roots are still there.
Lebanon did not need one of the world’s most horrific accidental detonations to remind people it is a state teetering on the edge of collapse.
However, the destructive power of 2,750 metric tonnes of ammonium nitrate ignited in Beirut’s port, killing 135 people and injuring 5,000 more so far, has amplified the parlous state in which Lebanon finds itself.
Lebanon might not meet the accepted definition of a failed state because it retains the trappings of a central government. But an administration corrupted by a patronage system based on the country’s confessional groupings has long failed to deliver basic services to a population of 6.8 million.
Power shortages are a fact of daily life, inflation is rampant, the Lebanese pound has collapsed, unemployment has gone through the roof, crime has sky-rocketed, and food shortages are endemic.
If not a failed state, Lebanon is a failing one.
And it has been failing for a long time.
In essence, Lebanon’s problems are structural and therefore not capable of simple, or even rational, solutions.
The problems go back to the French mandate-era constitution of 1926, which sought to divide power between the country’s Christians and Muslims.
Under these arrangements, refined over the years, the president would be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim, and the speaker of the National Assembly, or parliament, a Shia Muslim.
Cabinet’s composition would reflect these main confessional strands. So would positions in the military, security apparatus, judiciary and bureaucracy.
Needless to say, haggling over the distribution of the spoils of office has contributed to one of the most corrupt countries on the planet.
According to Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, Lebanon ranks 137 out of 180 globally.
Lebanon’s wealth, such as it is, has been looted over the years by officeholders and their cronies to the point where the country is effectively bankrupt.
Then there is the increasing and disruptive influence of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah, now the dominant political force in the country. Hezbollah’s growing power is one of the reasons Lebanon’s fragile power-sharing arrangements have come under increasing stress.
At the same time, Lebanon has been inundated by Syrians displaced by their homeland’s civil war.
Relative to its population, Lebanon has absorbed more refugees than any other country in the world. They account for 30% of Lebanon’s population.
These pressures have pushed the Lebanese administration close to breaking point.
In that context, the port ammonium nitrate explosion could hardly have come at a worse moment for an embattled government. It has been engaged in months of testy negotiations with the International Monetary Fund on a bailout plan.
IMF negotiators have been frustrated by their inability to get Lebanese counterparts to sign on to an emergency relief scheme to enable Lebanon to keep functioning.
Among the sticking points has been agreement on what money has been lost or otherwise misappropriated.
“It has been really difficult. The core of the issue is whether there can be unity of purpose in the country,” the IMF’s managing director, Kristalina Georgieva, told reporters after talks had stalled.
This is an understatement.
Lebanese have been taking to the streets to protest against government corruption and incompetence. Those protests will now be fuelled by greater levels of outrage over the mismanagement by port authorities of highly combustible material that arrived on a Russian ship bound for Madagascar in 2013.
That ship did not continue the voyage. Its cargo was offloaded and placed in a warehouse. Higher authorities ignored repeated warnings from customs officials about the risks of continuing to store the ammonium nitrate.
Tragically, this episode pretty much sums up Lebanon’s central problem: lack of accountability due to a fractured and fragmented administration.
Action is already being taken against officials deemed immediately responsible for overseeing security in the Beirut port. But this is unlikely to assuage anger among the general population over what has taken place.
In the days before the explosion, and separate from it, Lebanon was already on tenterhooks in anticipation of a UN-backed court verdict in the trial of four members of Hezbollah accused of assassinating former prime minister Rafik Hariri.
Hariri, who spearheaded Lebanon’s reconstruction after its civil war, was killed in Beirut in 2005 by a massive truck bomb.
UN investigations based on phone records identified four alleged culprits, none of whom have been seen in public for years.
Hezbollah has questioned the validity of the UN’s inquiries.
The verdict was due on February 7. It has now been put off to August 18.
If the UN court finds the accused guilty it will add to sectarian tensions.
Questions have been asked in the past about whether Lebanon can survive as a confessional state based on archaic power-sharing arrangements. Those questions may resurface.
In the meantime, the country’s strategic significance, abutting Israel in the south and Syria to its east and north, means it is not in the interests of the wider Arab world, nor the West, to allow it to implode.
The outlook for Lebanon, whose main city was once known as the Paris of the East, is bleak.
First the drought, then bushfires and then flash floods: a chain of extreme events hit Australia hard in recent months. The coronavirus pandemic has only temporarily shifted our attention towards a new emergency, adding yet another risk.
We knew from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that the risk of extreme events was rising. What we perhaps didn’t realise was the high probability of different extreme events hitting one after the other in the same regions. Especially in the fringes of Australian cities, residents are facing new levels of environmental risk, especially from bushfires and floods.
But this cycle of devastation is not inevitable if we understand the connections between events and do something about them.
Measures to slow climate change are in the hands of policymakers. But, at the adaptation level, we can still do many things to reduce the impacts of extreme events on our cities.
We can start by increasing our capacity to see these phenomena as one problem to be tackled locally, rather than distinct problems to be addressed centrally. Solutions should be holistic, community-centred and focused on people’s practices and shared responsibilities.
We can draw lessons from humanitarian responses to large disasters, including both national and international cases. A recent review of disaster responses in urban areas found several factors are critical for more successful recovery.
One is to prioritise the needs of people themselves. This requires genuine, collaborative engagement. People who have been through a bushfire or flood are not “helpless victims”. They are survivors who need to be supported and listened to, not dictated to, in terms of what they may or may not need.
Another lesson is to link recovery efforts, rather than have individual agencies provide services separately. For instance, an organisation focusing on housing recovery needs to work closely with organisations that are providing water or sanitation. A coordinated approach is more efficient, less wearying on those needing help, and better reflects the interconnected reality of everyday life.
In the aid world this is known as an “area-based” approach. It prioritises efforts that are driven by people demand rather than by the supply available.
A third lesson is give people money, not goods. Money allows people to decide what they really need, rather than rely on the assumptions of others.
As the bushfires have shown, donations of secondhand goods and clothes often turn into piles of unwanted goods. Disposal then becomes a problem in its own right.
Planning approaches in outer urban areas should be realigned with our current understanding of bushfire and flood risk. This situation is challenging planners to engage with residents in new ways to ensure local needs are met, especially in relation to disaster resilience.
In areas of high bushfire risk, planning needs to connect equally with the full range of locals. Landscape and biodiversity experts, including Indigenous land managers, and emergency managers should work in association with planning processes that welcome input from residents. This approach is highly likely to reduce risks.
Planners have a vital job to create platforms that enable the interplay of ideas, local values and traditional knowledge. Authentic engagement can increase residents’ awareness of environmental hazards. It can also pave the way for specific actions by authorities to reduce risks, such as those undertaken by Country Fire Service community engagement units in South Australia.
Regenerating ecosystems by responding to flood risk can be crucial to increase urban and peri-urban resilience while reducing future drought and bushfire impacts.
Research on flood management suggests rainwater must be always seen as a resource, even in the case of extreme events. Sustainable water management through harvesting, retention and reuse can have long-term positive effects in regenerating micro-climates. It is at the base of any action aimed at comprehensively increasing resilience.
In this sense, approaches based on decentralised systems are more effective at countering the risks of drought, fire and flood locally. They consist of small-scale nature-based solutions able to absorb and retain water to reduce flooding. Distributed off-grid systems support water harvesting in rainy seasons and prevent fires during drought by maintaining soil moisture.
Decentralisation also creates opportunities for innovation in the management of urban ecosystems, with responsibility shared among many. Mobile technologies can help communities play an active role in minimising flood impacts at the small scale. Information platforms can also help raise awareness of the links between risks and actions and lead to practical solutions that are within everybody’s reach.
Disrupted ecosystems can make the local impacts of drought, fire and flood worse, but can also play a role in global failures, such as the recent pandemic. It is urgent to define and implement mechanisms to reverse this trend.
Lessons from disaster responses point towards the need to tailor solutions to community needs and local environmental conditions. A few key strategies are emerging:
foster networks and coordinated approaches that operate across silos
support local and traditional landscape knowledge
use information platforms to help people work together to manage risks
manage water locally with the support of populations to prevent drought and bushfire.
Recent environmental crises are showing us the way to finally change direction. Safe cities and landscapes can be achieved only by regenerating urban ecosystems while responding to increasing environmental risks through integrated, people-centred actions.
Elisa Palazzo, Urbanist and landscape planner – Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Built Environment, UNSW; Annette Bardsley, Researcher, Department of Geography, Environment and Population, University of Adelaide, and David Sanderson, Professor and Inaugural Judith Neilson Chair in Architecture, UNSW