By Tina Maglakelidze, UNA-NCA Senior Research Assistant
Against the backdrop of a spiraling economy and persisting COVID-19 outbreaks, the explosion of 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate in Lebanon’s capital has delivered a “disaster beyond measure.” Hundreds have perished, thousands are wounded, and dozens are still missing — but the full extent of the calamity remains incomprehensible, compounded by pre-existing political, financial, and health crises.
In the wake of the Beirut port blast, protests erupted outside the prime minister’s office and spurred the wholesale resignation of the national government. The people of Lebanon are not on their own, though, as the United Nations demonstrates its ability to cohere and coordinate a robust inter-agency response to a multi-faceted crisis.
Within 36 hours of the blast, the UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for Lebanon, Najat Rochdi, released $9 million from the Lebanon Humanitarian Fund to expedite assistance to the most vulnerable. Not long after, UN humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock allocated an extra $6 million from the Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) to support trauma care and begin the repair of damaged homes.
As Ms. Rochdi pointed out, “the task of rebuilding people’s lives and recovering from the devastation is only just beginning.” With an eye toward achieving full social and economic recovery, the UN and aid partners issued a flash appeal of $565 million to target four principal areas — food security, health, shelter, and education — and support the implementation of a three-phase strategy: (1) immediate assistance, (2) recovery and reconstruction, and (3) response to the pre-existing socio-economic crisis.
Despite the UN’s weathered criticisms, notably from the current U.S. government, no other organization in the world has the institutional wherewithal to meet a crisis of this magnitude. Seventy-five years since its inception, the United Nations continues to demonstrate the importance of international cooperation. UN sister agencies are working alongside local partners to address food insecurity, provide children with vaccinations, distribute ‘dignity kits’ to displaced women, and support citizens’ claims for accountability.
OCHA: Coordinating the humanitarian response
On August 14, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) issued an official document requesting international funding in support of national relief and recovery. In assistance to first responders, the United Nation’s humanitarian affairs office is coordinating the deployment of experts from the UN Disaster Assessment and Coordination and the International Search and Rescue Group.
WFP: Addressing the looming threat of hunger
Eighty-five percent of the Lebanon’s grain enters through Beirut port, and current wheat flour reserves in Lebanon are expected to last only six weeks. The World Food Program (WFP), the UN food-assistance branch, estimates that if the port is not rehabilitated this month, people could run out of bread in about 2 ½ weeks.
The executive director of the WFP, David Beasley, is working with the Lebanese army to clear part of the site and restore at least partial capacity of the port. The UN has projected that Lebanon will need over $47 million to ensure food security in the immediate future, and the WFP is requesting $250 million in aid for the next six months. In addition to providing logistical support and supply chain expertise, the WFP’s first shipment of 17,500 metric tons of wheat flour is due to arrive on August 20. It will “put bread on the table of all the people of Lebanon” and will be followed up by larger shipments of three-and six-month supplies of wheat, respectively.
WHO: Delivering essential trauma and medical supplies
As a result of the blast, nearly 40% of the 55 primary healthcare centers in the area sustained moderate-to-serious damage, and less than half are still able to provide routine health services. Three hospitals in Beirut are now non-functional. Swift, coordinated responses are critical and the World Health Organization (WHO) has positioned itself as a crucial ally.
Within a day of the blast, a shipment of 20 tons of health supplies earmarked for thousands of trauma and surgical interventions was airlifted from WHO’s logistics hub in Dubai and delivered to Lebanon on a plane donated by the United Arab Emirates. The WHO is helping to transfer injured patients to hospitals across the country and is distributing supplies to priority hospitals.
In addition to the immediate response, WHO chief Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus released $2.2M from the Contingency Fund for Emergencies (CFE) to assist the management of the COVID-19 pandemic. Lebanon announced a record surge in its daily amount of COVID-19 infections and half of the total infections recorded to date were diagnosed in the past two weeks.
UNCHR: Protecting vulnerable communities
Lebanon hosts about 200,000 refugees, primarily from Syria and Palestine. As of August 11, 34 refugees lost their lives in the blast, 124 were injured, and at least seven are still missing. Refugees and migrants are considered a vulnerable group, and “shelter, health and protection” are top priorities for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
UNHCR spokesperson Charlie Yaxley confirmed that the agency is making available its in-country stocks of shelter kits and core relief items, including blankets and mattresses for immediate distribution. To alleviate pressure on overwhelmed hospitals, the UN refugee agency is also running mobile health clinics to provide medicines and health services to those most in need. Over 2,000 people have received medication for acute and chronic conditions and hundreds more have received psychosocial support.
UNFPA: Serving women’s reproductive health needs
Some 400 babies are due to be born in Beirut in the coming month. The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), which works to improve reproductive and maternal health worldwide, is on the ground in Lebanon providing medical assistance. Among the 300,000 who were displaced by the explosion, UNFPA is supporting an estimated 129,000 women and girls, including roughly 4,000 expectant mothers. UNFPA is working alongside partner organizations to ensure that these women receive necessary antenatal, obstetric, and neonatal care services. The agency has, to date, distributed more than 10,000 dignity kits which contain sanitary pads, soap, and towels.
UNICEF: Mobilizing volunteers and keeping children safe
According to the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), over 100,000 children have been rendered homeless by the Beirut blast. UNICEF has assisted with the distribution of 10,000 tetanus vaccines as well as emergency kits and drugs to primary healthcare centers in need. The agency has reached over 4,000 households by mobilizing hundreds of volunteers to help distribute food, water, clothes, and detergents and perform minor repairs on homes and shops.
Over the next three months, UNICEF is asking for $46.7 million to achieve its three main objectives: (1) to keep children safe, (2) rehabilitate essential services, and (3) provide young people with the skills and tools needed to rebuild. Expected to arrive on August 18, UNICEF has procured a shipment of personal protective equipment (PPE), including millions of masks and gloves, to over 194 primary health care centers in Lebanon.
UNESCO: Ensuring education doesn’t fall behind
Nearly 120 schools, public and private, were either partially or totally damaged in and around Beirut. This impacts over 55,000 students and further jeopardizes the start of the academic year. Working alongside local partners, UNESCO, the educational and cultural arm of the UN, will help to rehabilitate damaged schools and provide technical and financial support to the Ministry of Education to develop remote learning solutions for the COVID-19 pandemic.
OHCHR: Echoing calls for accountability
The catastrophe in Beirut has shone an unapologetic light on systemic problems plaguing Lebanon, including a deficit of competent governance and rampant corruption. On August 10, Prime Minister Hassan Diab and his cabinet resigned, but the Lebanese President has said it is “impossible” for him to step down in the aftermath of such chaos. Daily protests continue, and citizens maintain their demands for the complete overhaul of the entire political class.
By undertaking an independent investigation into the explosion, the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights (OHCHR) is supporting the people’s calls for accountability. Shared in a statement by the UN Human Rights agency, experts “support calls for a prompt, impartial, credible and independent investigation based on human rights principles, to examine all claims, concerns, and needs in relation to the explosion as well as the underlying human rights failures.”
According to several reports, pollutants released by the explosion are causing severe air contamination across Beirut. The Lebanese have a right to information about the cause of the explosion and the health, environmental, and safety risks that continue to follow it. Beyond condolences, the international community must extend its support for the victims by amplifying their demands for transparency and justice.
UNDP: Forging an inclusive path to recovery
Before the Beirut port blast, the Lebanese currency had already lost nearly 70% of its value and almost half of the country’s population was expected to fall below the poverty line in 2020. In the aftermath of the explosions, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) is prioritizing the restoration of livelihoods and small businesses and increasing access to justice for impacted vulnerable groups.
Nearly 10,000 enterprises in the direct vicinity of the blast have been decimated or put out of business. One hundred thousand people are now unemployed and highly food insecure. In addition to promoting counseling services, the UNDP will support legal aid efforts to help vulnerable groups safeguard their labor and housing rights. UNDP Country Resident Representative Celine Moyroud explains that the agency is “fully committed to supporting Lebanon on an inclusive path to recovery and development that leaves no one behind and that is attentive to people’s calls for change, greater accountability and transparency.”
While it may read as an extensive love letter to the United Nations, this piece is, first and foremost, a call to action. We must protect the UN’s indispensable work in Lebanon, and across the world. The FY’21 budget request slashes U.S. engagement and financial support for the UN. Against the backdrop of withdrawal from the WHO and the UN Human Rights Council, this critically shortsighted move endangers our collective health and security. Stand alongside UNA-NCA in urging your Congressional representatives to rally support for the UN and ensure that the U.S. fulfills its Regular Budget dues for the Fiscal Year 2021.