In the aftermath of August 4’s Beirut port explosion, UNICEF’s response was immediate and comprehensive. With initial estimates of 300,000 people directly affected – including 100,000 children – UNICEF set in process a programme of house-to-house surveys of families, and a series of technical assessments of larger buildings in collaboration with partners on the ground. One of the first priorities was to restore water to damaged homes, schools and hospitals and to do so as swiftly as possible – while constantly remaining attentive to coronavirus best practice.
The 126-year-old Collège Sacré-Coeur on Gemmayze was hit by the full force of the explosion’s pressure wave. Fortunately, the school was largely empty at the time - casualties were minimal; injuries minor. However, as school director Rodolph Abboud remarks, the building suffered the most severe damage in its history.
“There is barely a piece of glass not broken, and doors are smashed. The building’s services are badly damaged too – the electricity supply is now in an exposed and dangerous condition, and all of our water supplies were cut”, he comments. All this as the school is the middle of arranging to at least partially reopen – with Covid-19 restrictions in place - to its 1,300 kindergarten to grade 12 pupils in September.
One of the first calls Abboud received was from UNICEF partner DPNA. Together, the two agencies have a lengthy track-record of connecting families to fresh, safe, and clean water as part of UNICEF’s WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) programme. For now, they’re focusing on restoring supplies within the heart of the nation’s capital city.
A total of nine, UNICEF-supplied 1,000 litre water tanks were installed at the college, and damaged water pipes were repaired – all within a 48-hour period. Much of the work on the ground is being carried out by Lebanese youth – as part of another UNICEF programme, forty-five of Lebanon’s youth are currently being trained on how to re-establish water connections.
During its assessment of the affected area, UNICEF partner DPNA completed 732 building assessments – with further 450 not yet accessed because they are unoccupied or in too dangerous a condition to enter. Water tanks have been installed in 168 buildings, and pipework repaired in a further 153. Work continues alongside the Beirut Mount Lebanon Water Establishment to ensure the reconnection of 83 buildings to the public supply of water.
A little over 1,500 metres to the east, and with a direct line of site across to Beirut port’s now infamous grain silos, sits Karantina Hospital – or at least what remains of it. A scene of death and devastation on the evening of August 4, today UNICEF continues to work to restore essential services to this now largely empty shell as rebuilding gets underway.
A total rehabilitation of the hospital building is essential – and UNICEF, along with partner DPNA, were quickly on site replacing twenty damaged 1,000-litre water tanks and securing leaking pipes. The only state hospital in Karantina – an area home to some of Beirut’s most vulnerable families and children – it is a key focal point of the neighbourhood’s health infrastructure, as well as the home of Lebanon’s national childhood vaccination programmes.
Following a site survey and a detailed technical assessment, the water tanks were installed and connected in just one day.
The explosion’s impact on the city’s families is widespread. Sitting on the edge of Beirut’s otherwise wealthy suburb of Achrafieh is the small community of Karm El Zeitoun. A collection of dense housing along narrow streets, bordered on both sides by busy highways, it is passed by thousands of commuters every day, but barely registers in most motorist’s minds.
For the vulnerable families of Karm El Zeitoun, UNICEF - this time with partner LebRelief – were the first to offer help.
Lebanese resident George Saroyan was two-hundred meters from his home when the explosion occurred. Running home, his only thoughts were of his wife and newborn – then just ten-day-old – baby. Finding his home’s front door blown off its hinges, he was relieved to find mother and child unhurt.