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.
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.
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