Less than 48 hours to the 75th anniversary of the detonation of an atomic bomb over the Japanese city of Hiroshima by the United States of America, an explosion that has been dubbed one of the largest non-nuclear blasts in history, devastated the Port of Beirut.
On Tuesday, a fire outbreak at a warehouse in the port got out of control and led to a colossal explosion that destroyed the dockside area and sent a supersonic blast wave that caused extensive damage to buildings all over the city. The blast was so strong that one ship was apparently blown out of the water and onto the dockside.
In the aftermath of the explosion, authorities discovered that the blast had been caused by 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate that had been stored unsafely at a warehouse in the port. Regrettably, the chemicals had no business being at the port.
The cargo had been seized in 2013 after the owner of a vessel on which it arrived abandoned the vessel due to technical problems. The cargo was reportedly transferred to the warehouse following a court order and should have been disposed of or resold.
However, as a result of neglect and mismanagement, one of the largest and busiest ports on the Eastern Mediterranean was almost obliterated from the map. As expected, Prime Minister of Beirut, Hassan Diab described the circumstances that led to the explosion as unacceptable and ordered an investigation unveil the circumstances surrounding what happened.
Could this catastrophe have been avoided? Yes. Are there lessons in it for Nigerian port operators? There just might be.
Action on overtime cargo: Overtime cargoes are a constant menace at Nigerian ports as recently revealed to a team of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) led by Amine Mati, its mission chief to Nigeria. The General Manager of Ports and Terminal Multi-Services Limited (PTML), Tunde Keshiro, told the visiting team that since 2016, 30 per cent of its terminal space was taken up by overtime cargo.
Nigerian ports are notorious for congestions which occur as a result of factors such as poor infrastructure, 100% physical Customs examination, and abandonment of cargoes by importers among others. However, there is also a proclivity among importers to surreptitiously convert the terminal spaces into warehouses. This practice raises serious commercial and security concerns for the operator as revenue is lost, while accidents may occur due to overtime storage of hazardous materials.
The chemicals that exploded in Beirut arrived in 2013 and while Lebanese Customs repeatedly warned about the danger posed by the stored ammonium nitrate, calls for it to be removed were ignored. Doesn’t this remind you of a country you know?
Specialized ports: At various times, there have been calls for the establishment of specialized ports to ensure optimization of port services, increase efficiency, and promote specialization. Experts and operators have sought the development of dedicated oil and gas ports, agricultural produce ports, fishing ports, as well as special ports for chemical substances.
Their position is based on the argument that specialized ports are better suited to conform to the dynamics of the cargoes they receive and process. In Nigeria’s case, it is argued that specialized ports will help decongest the country’s main ports, reduce the prevailing complexity surrounding cargo processing and fast-track clearance. This is in addition to attaining expertise in the handling of specialized cargoes and avoiding accidents that may occur in the process.
The cargo of Ammonium nitrate that exploded in Beirut is a crystal-like white solid commonly used as a source of nitrogen for agricultural fertiliser. On its own, it is not usually regarded as particularly volatile or dangerous; however under certain conditions it can be deadly. Most countries have regulations controlling its storage to make sure it is safe.
Explosive experts confirm that Ammonium nitrate is strongly regulated throughout most of the world. But sadly there have been a number of occurrences of these large ammonium nitrate explosions and poor storage conditions are always to blame.
For proponents of specialized ports in Nigeria, if any explosion of the same or even lesser magnitude occurs at Nigeria’s main port of Apapa, the consequences to the country’s economy would be better left imagined. This recent development has prompted renewed calls for increased safety and security at the petroleum product jetties located at the port complex.
Regulatory awareness: The principal law that governs maritime activities in Nigeria is the Merchant Shipping Act, 2007 (MSA). Part XX specifically provides for the carriage of dangerous goods or hazardous materials by water on vessels, while sections 322 – 326 of the MSA state that the carriage of dangerous goods shall have regard to the International Maritime Dangerous Goods (IMDG) Code of the International Maritime Organisation (IMO).
Transport of dangerous goods by sea is regulated by IMDG Code in order to prevent injury to persons or damage to ships and their cargoes. The objective of the IMDG Code is to enhance the safe transport of dangerous goods while facilitating the free unrestricted movement of such goods.
With emphasis on the method of packing, quantity to be carried and precautions that shall be taken with respect to the carriage of hazardous goods in the MSA, a separate action was needed to guide storage of hazardous goods.
In this regard, the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA), has developed an IMDG portal and installed exact Earth and Hazcheck Systems software for tracking of dangerous goods in the country.
Following the blast in Beirut, documents have been circulated online which appear to show that Customs officials sent letters to the judiciary seeking guidance at least six times from 2014 to 2017.
Insurance: In financial terms, the blast in Beirut has further crippled an economy that was already struggling with securing an IMF loan amid a debt default. With extensive damage to huge grain silos, destroyed warehouses and port equipment, damaged vessels and houses, officials conservatively estimate that the collective losses might reach US$10-US$15 billion.
Bringing it back home- For a country where apathy towards insurance is legendary and whose economic mainstay is sold Free on Board (FoB) to the detriment of specialised services subsector of the petroleum industry, Nigeria may never be able recover from such a blow.
As an import dependent country, the state of marine insurance in Nigeria is abysmally poor. It is important to establish that Customs regulations require every importer to locally insure a cargo coming into Nigeria, however many shippers ignore this Customs requirement.
It can be argued that if Beirut was Nigeria, close to 65% of goods stored in the destroyed warehouses would lack proper insurance coverage. This is symptomatic of the ignorance in the industry and it is telling that Nigerians are already wagering that the Port of Beirut will be rebuilt and go into full steam before Apapa and the issue of articulated vehicles will be fixed.
As they say, a word is enough for the wise!