Destroyed building in Lebanon
CARE Lebanon

Beirut Blast: How to coordinate the humanitarian response to the largest non-nuclear explosion in history?

Three years after the Beirut port exploded, killing over 200 people, injuring 7,000 and leaving a trail of destrcution, CARE Lebanon’s Program Implementation Coordinator Hovig Atamian describes how he coordinated the humanitarian response to the disaster.

Describe to us what you experienced the day of the explosion?

HA: I was on my way home after I had left the office when we heard the explosion. I looked up and saw a giant cloud shrouding the city. I was shellshocked. I thought we were being bombed. In that moment, I had bad flashbacks of the 2006 war. People were running around in all directions, crying and calling for help. I looked around and saw shards of glass and dust everywhere. Many people were injured by the shattered pieces of glass and had to be rushed to medical help on scooters, or on the shoulders of random passersby, with blood on their faces. Till this day, it is so difficult to go back to those memories and remember what I saw. I knew right away that as a humanitarian I would need to get to work right away, but I also saw people’s humanitarian instinct immediately kick in and how they came together in solidarity to help each other.

How did CARE Lebanon contribute to the Beirut Port explosion relief efforts?

HA: Around two hours after the explosion, I received a call from CARE Lebanon's Country Director, who was checking on all staff members. During the call, he also informed me that I would be leading CARE's emergency response to the explosion.

We decided to focus our immediate efforts on the distribution of food as there was a great need for hot meals in the areas that were close to the epicenter of the blast due to hundreds of thousands of people being displaced from their homes. We also went farther afield from the epicenter to reach areas that had also been heavily impacted, distributing food parcels to those in need, whose homes had sustained some damage. CARE Lebanon had extensive prior experience in distributions, most recently during the COVID-19 pandemic.

We were one of the first humanitarian organizations to deploy its emergency response teams to the field, as soon as the next day, to assess immediate needs. We identified local partners who had already been working with vulnerable households in the area prior to the blast, like Beit el-Baraka, Rifaq Al-Darb.

Within two weeks we were able to assist a total of 1,053 households, or 4,088 individuals, who received food parcels through our local partners. In addition, 1,650 hot meals were provided in areas located near the epicenter of the blast.

In the following weeks we expanded our response as we started to receive more grants from a wide range of government and corporate donors, to include shelter renovation and rehabilitation projects as well as livelihood, basic assistance, and protection interventions.

What were some of the main challenges you faced during the response? How did you address those?

HA: Coordination was a challenge in the first couple of days following the explosion. Some of our colleagues, whether working at CARE or with different partner organizations, were directly affected by the blast. This posed a challenge in mobilizing everyone to the field immediately. However, CARE managed to respond effectively by deploying its staff from different regions in Lebanon to address the emergency.

Furthermore, it's important to note that the scale of this particular emergency was not anticipated or factored into any of CARE’s emergency preparedness planning discussions, or by any other humanitarian actor in Lebanon for that matter. As a result, it took a few days to establish a national coordination mechanism to handle the situation.

Impacted households experienced assessment fatigue because of repeated visits by various organizations conducting rapid needs assessments. People were tired and still in shock, meaning that they were not always willing or able to speak to humanitarians. The sheer volume of needs assessments that were conducted raised community expectations, many of which could not be immediately met.

At CARE we quickly introduced robust accountability and control mechanisms, including by ensuring that we always had a focal point for Protection from Sexual Harassment, Exploitation and Abuse (PHSEA) present in the field. All partners and CARE field staff received PSHEA awareness sessions ahead of any distributions. COVID precautionary measures were also strictly adhered to, we distributed masks and hygiene gels and were mindful of social distancing as the explosion happened in the midst of the pandemic.

Usually, distributions of humanitarian assistance target the most vulnerable, but the Beirut Port explosion equally impacted everyone in this city, the rich and the poor. Those who lived in big mansions, and those who lived in tiny apartments; Lebanese citizens, Syrian and Palestinian refugees, migrant workers from Bangladesh, Ethiopia, and elsewhere, as well as foreign expats.

Looking back at the past 3 years, what would you see is the most persistent need that emerged after the explosion?

HA: Today, we are witnessing an ongoing, multi-layered, and multi-dimensional humanitarian crisis that has profoundly impacted the entire country. The situation was further exacerbated by the devastating explosion, which added to the complexities and challenges faced by the people of Lebanon. This crisis has given rise to various pressing issues, including socio-economic struggles, financial instability, political tensions, and civil unrest.

It is crucial to recognize that despite the passage of time, the needs of the people in Lebanon remain acute and urgent. Many individuals and families are still grappling to secure their basic necessities for survival. In light of this reality, it is imperative for CARE and other organizations to collaborate closely and work together with local civil society to address a host of pressing humanitarian needs in the country.

To effectively address these challenges, the international community should prioritize Lebanon in their funding strategies. Although the country may not be experiencing an active emergency at present, such as conflict, the level of needs remains exceptionally high.

One of the crucial lessons learned from the Beirut blast emergency response was the recognition of the utmost importance of the localization agenda, which stands as a fundamental pillar of CARE's global strategy. The response to the Beirut blast served as a testament to the critical and central role local organizations play in this sector by rapidly mobilizing resources and their deep local knowledge at times of emergency. While a considerable portion of the funds were directed towards international organizations, it was the local organizations who took on the heaviest and most challenging tasks.

Throughout the response, the resilience and competence of Lebanese civil society and local organizations were once again demonstrated, proving their ability to execute complex projects and effectively serve their communities.

Building upon these valuable insights, CARE Lebanon has embarked on a strategic shift to fully invest in a local partnerships approach. We have been gradually transitioning from direct implementation to working through local partners, fostering an environment of equal partnerships between international and local entities. By cultivating these partnerships, our collective efforts can be harnessed more efficiently and effectively, leading to more sustainable outcomes in supporting affected communities.