African ports need to learn the lessons of Beirut

Is an incident similar to the disastrous explosion in Beirut likely to occur in an African port and what can be done to prevent it? Maritime security experts Christian Bueger and Scott Edwards analyse the risks


The disastrous explosion in Beirut on 4 August 2020 was caused by hazardous materials stored in the port. How likely is a similar incident in an African port and what would be required to prevent it? Maritime security experts Christian Bueger and Scott Edwards analyse the risks

The disastrous explosion in Beirut on 4 August 2020, which was reported to have taken at least 135 lives at the time of writing, was fuelled by 2,750 tonnes of the highly reactive chemical ammonium nitrate that had been held in the port for nearly seven years. As such, the disaster puts a spotlight on the global trade in hazardous materials and the importance of port security. It also contains some important warnings for African ports.

As recorded in shipping industry journal The Arrest News, in 2013 the chemicals arrived onboard the MV Rhosus. Flying the Moldovan flag, the vessel was heading to Biera in Mozambique. En route the ship faced technical problems and entered Beirut port. Upon inspection the vessel was considered unsafe, and not allowed to proceed. The vessel and its cargo were abandoned and efforts to get in touch with the owner and charterers failed. With no one claiming the property, the dangerous chemicals were stored in the port’s warehouses.

While the tragedy is still under investigation and all the details are as of yet unknown, the inappropriate storage and handling of the hazardous material played a major role in the event.

Risks for African ports

What, if any, are the lessons for Africa? The very fact that the chemicals were destined for Mozambique raises concerns. Hazardous materials are frequently shipped to African ports. Even when African ports are not the ultimate destination of dangerous substances, containers may be held in transit. Weak management might increase the length of time such materials have to be managed, and the risk they entail. As African ports are increasingly expanded as part of blue economy strategies, these risks need to be taken seriously.

Ports in Africa are also faced with another kind of material that can be hazardous: waste. The waste trade is a thriving global economy, with material ranging from electronics (e-waste), plastic, medical, chemical or even radioactive waste shipped across the globe daily. Ports in West and East Africa are the primary destinations of such goods.

Often such waste is traded illicitly. Through false papers, wrong declarations, and other smuggling activities toxic waste can enter African ports undetected. Frequently such cargos are then either inappropriately disposed of, or even abandoned. UN reports indicate that there might be a substantial number of such abandoned containers in Africa and elsewhere. Such containers pose a significant risk.

A disaster as it occurred in Beirut is certainly the exception. Yet, there are other, more silent, ways in which dangerous substances such as toxic waste and chemicals can cause significant harm to the inhabitants of port cities, and even those beyond. Waste and chemicals can pollute ground and surface water around the ports if abandoned, or managed, and packaged improperly (as the majority of smuggled waste is) and hence impact on public health.

This traded waste can also have more significant health implications if it is not intercepted and instead goes on to be disposed of improperly in areas beyond the port. In a now landmark case, the Trafigura ship Probo Koala, handed its toxic waste over to a local company in Côte d’Ivoire. That waste was then dumped in multiple locations in Abidjan, sparking a major long-term health crisis.

Such impacts can also be seen in Ghana, where flows of illegal e-waste clear Ghanaian ports to be disposed of unsafely by informal actors salvaging valuable elements such as gold, copper, and nickel, and rare materials of strategic value such as indium and palladium. The improper dismantling and recycling of e-waste has a detectable impact on the health of workers, who are often already vulnerable. The rest of the waste is burned, allowing for the leakage of toxicities into the environment, creating toxic smog, and even contributing to climate change.

Ports are the first line of defence in preventing dangerous substances causing significant harm to the environment and those living in port cities.

Preventing the next disaster

African ports are core hubs in the global trade of dangerous substances and waste. Yet, they often lack adequate procedures to detect and handle hazardous materials. They are hence particularly vulnerable. As ports are expanded, become more vital in national economies, and may often move closer to populated areas and informal settlements, these vulnerabilities need to be addressed.

Port safety and security has become a growing concern as part of the international maritime security agenda. In particular, the threat of maritime terrorism has led to more measures aimed at increasing the level of security in ports through surveillance, training and guidelines. The Basel Convention regulates the global waste trade, yet it does not aim at tackling illicit activities.

Evidence points to significant gaps in the Basel Convention, including a lack of harmonisation and difficulties in ensuring the convention is properly interpreted and implemented. As smuggled dangerous substances are often mislabelled or disguised, containers need to be carefully inspected and the inspectors need to have a strong degree of training in order to recognise it.

Programmes run by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime’s Global Maritime Crime Programme, the International Maritime Organisation and the European Union aim at building capacity in African ports to raise security levels and ensure the implementation of international legal provisions.

The focus of such programmes is, however, general port management, or blue crimes such as the smuggling of narcotics and weapons. Dangerous substances and waste crimes require more attention. Too often the waste problem is considered as a minor environmental problem, rather than a public security concern. Agencies tasked with dealing with the issue remain under-resourced. After Beirut, the way in which all dangerous substances are handled in ports, including waste, needs to be re-evaluated.

A wake-up call

The lesson of Beirut for Africa is that dedicated capacity building activities are required. These must ensure that the current procedures for handling and storing hazardous materials in African ports are reviewed and strengthened. Better detection and handling of dangerous substances, especially those that result of waste smuggling, also need to be focused upon. In terms of waste in particular, legislation need to be reviewed, to assess whether it sufficiently criminalises waste crimes or their facilitation.

Port operators or port cities will not be able to deal with the challenge on their own. Given the transnational scale of the problem, it is not only a national responsibility, but requires regional and global responses. The burgeoning waste trade into Africa highlights that the trade of dangerous substances needs to be better monitored and regulated, and information on waste crimes should be shared.

The tragedy of Beirut is an important wake-up call to take the threats presented by the global trade of hazardous goods seriously, and to tackle it by improving port security.

Dr. Christian Bueger is Professor of International Relations at the University of Copenhagen and the Director of the SafeSeas network for maritime security research. [email protected]

Dr. Scott Edwards is a Research Associate at the University of Bristol. [email protected]

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