Tripoli, Lebanon – On August 4, several ships were making their way through the Mediterranean Sea towards the port of Beirut to offload shipments of wheat, medicine and steel, among others.
But when the clock struck 6:08pm in Lebanon, a huge explosion at Beirut port’s now-infamous Hangar 12 sent strong shockwaves through the sea. They were felt all the way to Cyprus.
Caused by the detonation of nearly 3,000 tonnes of unsecured ammonium nitrate, the explosion created what many describe as an apocalypse, wreaking unprecedented havoc across the city. In a flash of a second, thousands of buildings were destroyed, at least 180 residents were killed, and about 6,000 people injured.
At sea, port authorities and ship owners 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 percent of what it consumes – docked in Tripoli instead of Beirut.
With Beirut port receiving 70 percent of all the country’s imports before the incident, many observers expected Tripoli’s smaller port to falter.
But the northern port, known for its vital role as a transit point for sea trade to Iraq and Syria, stepped in fully for Beirut, taking on a vital economic role for the country.
The quick response and efficient flow of goods into Tripoli saved Lebanon from an impending food crisis, said Tripoli’s port authorities, and kept the small Mediterranean country’s already-struggling economy afloat.
From August 4-12, Tripoli’s port became the main destination for ships carrying general cargo and containers carrying everything from food, medicine and building materials to Lebanon.
“Tripoli’s port was working at only 40 percent of its capacity before of the incident,” said Ahmad Tamer, general manager of Tripoli’s port, explaining that years of political instability in the region – and more recently the coronavirus pandemic – had significantly slowed down the economy.
“And so when the blast hit, we were more than capable of filling in for Beirut,” he said.
He added the redirection of Lebanese imports to Tripoli helped ensure that Lebanon did not go hungry.
With about 85 percent of Lebanon’s wheat supply usually coming through Beirut’s port, the United Nations’s food programme had predicted the country would run out of bread in two-and-a-half weeks after the blast.
But that was not the case. “Everyone expected a wheat crisis, but we filled in and received the shipments,” said Tamer.
Tamer explained that although Tripoli’s port is relatively smaller compared with Beirut’s, its “logistical infrastructure and services” were advanced enough to allow it to manage the instant increase in the volume of goods.
While Tripoli’s receipt of the majority of Lebanon’s imports was only needed for a short time, Tamer said it had the capacity to take on the role of filling in for Beirut “for several months” rather than just a week, “without any compromise on quality of services”.
About 10 days after the blast, which wiped out Beirut’s port and much of the city, the facility was relatively back on its feet and capable of taking back most of the containers it used to receive.
According to Hassan Dannoui, acting chairman and general manager of Tripoli’s special economic zone, while vessels carrying containers have returned to Beirut, the majority of cargo and bulk shipments continue to dock at Tripoli’s port.
“We’ve gone back to the pretty much the same situation before the blast, except that the volume of cargo coming to Tripoli is higher,” said Dannoui.
According to Tamer, the port manager: “Before the explosion, Tripoli was taking 50-60 percent of all general cargo coming to Lebanon, but now we are receiving 80-90 percent of it.”
Ports usually take in materials, for import and export purposes, at two main cargo terminals – the conventional cargo terminal, which specialises in bulk goods such as wheat, grains, building materials; or a container terminal that deals with goods shipped inside steel containers.
Unlike cargo, goods imported in containers usually do not need further storage facilities at the port.
According to figures in 2019, Beirut port’s carrying capacity for containers was at least 1.3 million, whereas Tripoli’s stood at about 300,000-400,000. Estimates given by both ports indicate that Tripoli and Beirut have a similar capacity for cargo.
While the cargo terminal is important, it is considered commercially and strategically less valuable to the container terminal.
“Beirut’s port is back 100 percent,” Bassem el-Kaissi, the general director of the port of Beirut, told Al Jazeera, explaining a task force cleared the port docks and repaired cranes and other equipment to allow for the return of most containers.
El-Kaissi was appointed on August 11 after an arrest warrant was issued against the port’s former manager, Hassan Koraytem, as part of the investigation into the blast.
He said while loading, offloading and the transport of goods have gone back to normal, storage at Beirut port remains the main problem after 21 warehouses were destroyed.
Despite the destruction, the workflow has been relatively smooth at Beirut’s port, according to businessmen and customs workers.
Bassem Bawab, the owner of an import company in Lebanon, said although the movement of goods is now slower than before the blast, work has been rather efficient.
“The process of getting our goods out of the port and to our own warehouses takes more time and money than before because the administrative offices have been affected,” said Bawab. “Otherwise, work has been fine.”
Because Bawab only uses containers to transport his goods and has his own warehouses in the city, ships carrying his goods returned to Beirut as soon as it was operational again.
And unlike other cargo companies that may need storage, he has been mostly unaffected by the fact that Beirut’s port has lost its free zone and storage facilities in the blast.
“Companies that do need storage have to pay more for storage outside the port,” said Bawab.
Another service affected by the blast at Beirut port are customs, which have been relocated to Beirut’s Rafic Hariri airport after the blast.
According to Wael Kabbani, a partner at a company dealing in customs clearance at Lebanon’s port and airports, although the lack of administrative buildings at the port make customs clearance a little more time consuming, the process has been smooth because of the smaller volume of imports coming through Beirut.
“The effects of the blast haven’t been huge because the economy had shrunk for several months,” said Kabbani. “The volume of cargo we’ve been clearing since the start of 2020 has been about 60-70 percent less than before.”
An internal assessment completed by Beirut port authorities on August 27 indicated the damage caused by the blast will require up to a year and $1bn to repair, said el-Kaissi.
Although many have commended Beirut port’s quick return to operation, others believe more needs to be done to ensure those responsible for the explosion are held accountable.
According to Bassel Salloukh, an 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 Lebanon after the civil war.
“The way the sectarian system invites the lack of accountability, the lack of transparency, and corruption … these put together led to the explosion in Beirut,” he said.
Lebanese economic journalist Mohamed Wehbe agreed. “The structure of Beirut port is modelled around, and a reflection of, the confessional system in the country.
“It was established to represent the political and economic groups that have gained and maintained financial power after the civil war,” he added.
Judicial investigator Judge Fadi Sawan has issued at least 25 arrest warrants as part of a continuing investigation into the explosion.
None of the politicians in charge when the chemicals were stored at the port since 2013 has been interrogated.