Ireland

Opinion: 'Lebanon needs help - or the consequences for the Middle East don't bear thinking about'

LEBANON WAS ALREADY at the heart of a triple crisis which threatened the very existence of the state, even before the massive warehouse explosion yesterday which ripped through central Beirut, killing 100 people and injuring almost 4,000.

The country is experiencing its worst economic crisis in recent history, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. It is also hosting the greatest concentration of refugees per capita in the world.

Yesterday’s explosion means the international community must act immediately to prevent Lebanon’s collapse. Otherwise, the consequences this could have in the currently volatile Middle East region do not bear thinking about.

Lebanon is currently the third most indebted country in the world. Life is difficult for its people with spiralling unemployment, currently running at 35%. Shops and businesses are closing down and power cuts are lasting for up to 20 hours per day. Hospitals, already working to manage COVID cases, are threatened with closure due to a lack of funding.

Over the last nine months the Lebanese pound has lost 80% of its value and plummeted from its fixed exchange rate of 1,500 Lebanese Pounds to the US dollar to 8,000 last week on the black market. The price of basic food staples such as bread are soaring as a result, making them impossible to afford for the average person.

Public frustration flared with mass peaceful protests last October when the government introduced a range of measures to raise revenue including a levy on WhatsApp messages. Financial institutions introduced limits on the withdrawals of savings to stop a run on the banks.

Poverty is widespread in Lebanon, with 45% of the population below the poverty line and the current economic turmoil leaving many previously middle class people scrambling to make ends meet. Remittances sent home by Lebanese abroad have also reduced as a result of the global impact of the COVID pandemic, adding further to the problem.

Like in many other countries, the Lebanese government has imposed lockdowns to control the spread of COVID, with knock-on negative economic impacts.

Lebanon has shown enormous generosity in hosting 1.5 million refugees fleeing the war in neighbouring Syria. In a country the size of Munster one in four of the population is a refugee. This has contributed to over-stretching the already limited public services such as water, sanitation, health and education.

Challenges

Concern has been in Lebanon since 2013 working with refugees in the north of the country, and with the local host populations. The biggest challenge in the last 12 months has been to source funding for this work as Syria currently runs the risk of becoming a neglected crisis.

Our work there includes providing shelter, safe drinking water, latrines and septic tanks, as well as help accessing health and legal services and assistance against gender-based violence. Last year we helped 30,000 people. Funding for this work comes from a variety of major donors including UN agencies, the European Union and Irish Aid.

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Yesterday’s explosion made a desperate situation worse. The homes of thousands of people – many already living in poverty — were destroyed by the blast as it tore through the densely populated port area of the capital. The city’s governor estimates it may have left 250,000 people homeless. Given the extensive poverty, many will be unable to afford to rebuild.

Lebanon is largely dependent on imported food to feed its population. The explosion, combined with the economic crisis, has fuelled fears of an impending food crisis. The authorities confirmed yesterday that they had sufficient grain reserves for less than a month.

Concern’s team on the ground are linking with the Lebanese government and other agencies to assess the scale of needs of communities in Beirut. The outcome of that assessment, expected in the coming days, will shape Concern’s emergency response.

Bríd Kennedy is the Middle East regional director for Concern Worldwide, which has been providing humanitarian assistance in Lebanon since 2013. For more details visit the Concern website.

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