Damage to Beirut Port following last week’s devastating explosion is disrupting vital food supply lines, as questions emerge over how a 2013 shipment of ammonium nitrate destined for Mozambique ended up in storage at waterfront warehouses.

According to the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), at least 160 people were killed and more than 5,000 injured when vast quantities of explosive materials ignited on the afternoon of August 4.

UNOCHA’s most recent report on the incident says Beirut Port “is expected to be inoperable for at least a month”, while a temporary bulk receiving facility is needed for grain imports after the destruction of the country’s largest cereals silo.

Beirut’s container terminal – only partially affected by the explosion – resumed offloading ships on August 8, the report adds, but limited capacity means UN partners are currently “looking to adjust logistic networks to ensure sustained operations”.

Three cargo flights have already delivered logistics equipment to the port, including mobile grain storage units, and assessments of warehouses took place on August 11.

But UNOCHA says the majority of humanitarian aid will be delivered to the port at Tripoli instead, around 80km north of Beirut and close to Lebanon’s border with Syria. An assessment in Tripoli is scheduled for August 12.

“The change may have adverse consequences [for] some supply chains, as Tripoli Port has approximately a third the capacity of Beirut Port,” the report warns. “Rerouted vessels may congest the port.”

MarineTraffic shipping tracking data shows an uptick of activity around Tripoli in recent days, with port calls from cargo vessels, livestock carriers and tankers, as well as a small number of deliveries to Beirut itself.

For Lebanon’s population – already grappling with a severe economic crisis and fresh outbreaks of Covid-19 – there are serious concerns that food insecurity could be further exacerbated by the damage in Beirut.

The World Food Programme, which acts as the UN’s food provision agency, has warned that a drop in the flow of supplies into the country could “push food prices beyond the reach of many”.

All of the country’s rice, sugar and flour supplies are imported, and even before the explosion food prices had increased more than threefold since June 2019. The UN estimates that existing wheat flour reserves should last around six weeks, and a further shipment is due that will supply bakeries for a month.

However, overall imports have also dropped sharply after foreign currency restrictions introduced in late 2019 meant new transactions had to be funded with US dollars and paid in advance.

And a January 2020 study from the Centre de Recherche et d’Etudes Agricole Libanais, the Lebanese research centre for agricultural studies, suggests the value of domestic agricultural production was expected to plummet by as much as 38% over the course of this year.

That estimate includes a 47% decline in plant production, in part caused by shortages of imported seeds and fertiliser.

 

Mystery shipment

The disaster has also sparked a political crisis, with the government of Lebanon announcing on August 8 it would resign following large-scale public protests over authorities’ management of the highly explosive material.

Among the questions being raised is how that material ended up in storage at Beirut port in the first place. An October 15 note from Baroudi & Associates law firm reveals that that the 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate was initially onboard Rhosus, a Moldova-flagged vessel, and was being delivered to Mozambique when technical problems forced it to stop.

Following an inspection of the ship – which was already reportedly in poor condition prior to setting sail – port authorities said it would not be permitted to sail, and most of the crew members were repatriated. After that, the vessel “was abandoned by her owners after charterers and cargo concern lost interest” in the supplies on board.

“Our firm acting on instruction of these creditors obtained three arrest orders against the vessel,” the note says. “Efforts to get in touch with the owners, charterers and cargo owners to obtain payment failed.”

After months of legal wrangling over a small number of staff members held on board the ship – during which time port authorities refused to allow the cargo to be transferred to a different vessel – the explosive material was eventually discharged into warehouses at the port.

As of October 2015, when the note was written, the vessel and cargo were “in port awaiting auctioning and/or proper disposal”. Satellite imagery shows that Rhosus later sank.

The bill of lading for that shipment, obtained by the BBC, shows the purchasing company as Fábrica de Explosivos Moçambique (FEM), a mining explosives manufacturing company.

FEM says it did place the initial order, but was informed that the vessel had encountered problems in transit and would not be delivered.

“It’s absolutely not common,” a spokesperson for the company told CNN. “Usually, when you place an order for whatever it is that you’re buying, it’s not common that you don’t get the goods. This is a vessel, it’s not like one thing that was lost in the mail, it’s a big quantity.”

FEM adds it did not provide payment for the cargo. The company could not be reached for further comment.

It also remains unclear who initially owned or sold the cargo. The bill of lading also shows Rustavi Azot LLC as the shipper, but that company appears to have been dissolved and replaced by JSC Rustavi Azot.

In a statement issued on its website, the latter company says it has only operated the chemical production plant in question for the past three years, and so cannot confirm whether the cargo left in Beirut was produced locally.

The company adds that placing those materials in port warehouses “is a gross violation of safe storage measures, considering that ammonium nitrate looses [sic] its useful properties in 6 months period”.

JSC Rustavi Azot says it produces 1% of the world’s total ammonium nitrate consumption and is one of the country’s largest exporters. The company did not respond when contacted by GTR.