While the explosion that rocked Beirut this week, killing more than 100 people and devastating large tracts of a city that has over the years seen more than its share of violent deaths, was exceptional, there may be nothing quite as surprising about the circumstances that led to it.
From most accounts, the explosion was triggered by 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, lying in storage in Beirut port since 2013 when the vessel that had transported it was found unseaworthy and its owner abandoned it. Before the explosion, a fire had been reported from the vicinity and as scientists tell us, energy applied to ammonium nitrate as from a fire makes the molecule unstable. While it is inert in normal circumstances, poorly stored ammonium nitrate can explode if it set off by a fire. In 1947, a ship carrying ammonium nitrate had caught fire when docked in Texas, and the resultant explosion destroyed 1,000 buildings and killed more than 500 people.
Ammonium nitrate explosions have caused other accidents, too, in the past, and it is for this reason that most countries have stringent regulations on storage of the chemical.
But as was made clear by the explosion in Beirut, such regulations are often not properly implemented. The other factor to be considered is that hazardous material is routinely shipped around the world, and both mishandled as well as illegally traded.
Not surprisingly, abandoned containers of hazardous chemicals are often found in ports, as at Chennai where nearly 700 tonnes of ammonium nitrate has been lying since 2015, when it was seized after being found to be of explosive grade and not fertiliser grade as claimed by the importer.
While international maritime security is largely concentrated on piracy or terrorism, the prevention of port accidents does not get the importance it deserves.
According to the International Maritime Organisation, 97 ships have been abandoned since 2017 at ports around the world after their owners found them either unprofitable to operate or found it difficult to pay fines imposed for transgressions. There is, however, no reliable estimation of the number of containers that may have been abandoned at ports around the world or indeed of how many are packed with hazardous material.
According to some reports, large numbers of containers containing waste ~ a lot of it illegal such as un-recyclable plastic and at least some of it hazardous ~ is shipped to Asian ports and abandoned.
Just last year, port authorities in Colombo discovered more than 100 abandoned containers laden with clinical waste that may have included human remains. A leak from the containers triggered a public health panic.
As Lebanon grapples with the aftermath of the deadly explosion in Beirut, including huge public anger with the government, it is important to revisit the rules of maritime security, especially the penalties for abandoning vessels and containers, and improper transportation and storage of hazardous materials. If these measures are not taken, and expeditiously, no lessons would have been drawn from the Beirut tragedy.