Brett Moore is used to seeing damage and destruction. Throughout his career as a humanitarian, he has responded to some of the most difficult disasters and conflicts in countries like Syria, East Timor and Nepal.

But when he arrived in Beirut, Lebanon, a week after deadly explosions tore through the country’s capital, he knew he was facing a very different challenge.

“What I noticed was really the sheer volume of damage,” said Brett, UNHCR’s Global Chief of Shelter and Settlements, at Australia for UNHCR’s Frontline Club briefing on the situation in Lebanon.

“If you look at a segment of the skyline in Beirut, it wouldn’t look that different from parts of Sydney or parts of Melbourne.”

In the aftermath of the blast, 30 to 40 storey apartment blocks were left with windows shattered, balconies blown off and metal hanging and swaying precariously. The streets were covered in debris and damage.

“Of course, we’ve had many years working in different countries and issues, and working with a lot of camp populations, but whenever you are working in urban areas it is really quite complicated because you have these dense, multi-story situations.”

“In some streets, you had dozens of buildings collapsed. You couldn’t drive at all, you could barely walk through,” he said.

“Every building had some kind of damage, either windows or doors were blown out. Others were structurally damaged and unsafe to live in.”

damaged buildings from the Beirut explosion

The deadly explosions ripped through Lebanon's capital city of Beirut on Tuesday, 4 August. © UNHCR/H.Hariri

“What I noticed was really the sheer volume of damage.”

​Given UNHCR’s ongoing work in Lebanon – a country that has recently faced severe economic decline and the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic – Brett says the team was well-positioned to respond quickly and efficiently to the blast.

“A lot of material stock was ready for our winter response, so we had a large amount of pre-positioned relief items on hand,” he said.

“They were immediately accessed and disseminated through partners.”

Within three weeks, UNHCR provided around 7,500 emergency shelter kits to the most affected neighbourhoods in Beirut to keep people safe and secure.

But the varying degree of damage, coupled with the rampant inflation of building materials in the aftermath of the blast (initially increasing by 22 to 25 per cent before stabilising at around 11 to 13 per cent), has made the shelter response difficult and complicated. 

The aftermath of the explosion at the port in Beirut. © UNHCR/ H.Hariri

“Just the sheer volume of material required means it needs to be imported from the region in such a magnitude,” Brett said, adding time has also been of the essence as the bitterly cold winter months fast approach.

“We are going full steam ahead to try to repair and rehabilitate the damaged apartments. It is a massive effort on a daily basis.”

With 1.5 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, winter can be a life-threatening time for those vulnerable and living in makeshift tents and unfinished buildings.

“We do have a lot of Syrian refugees living in really poor conditions – plastic sheeting, semi renovated garages with no heating, no running water and shared bathroom facilities,” Brett said.

“That can get pretty desperate when it is very, very cold.”

“Providing humanitarian aid with dignity is really important. We have to meet people as equals. That is what we always strive to do.”

Demand for humanitarian aid is only likely to increase in the coming months, and our resources to meet these needs in Lebanon are already under enormous strain due to the massive global response to safeguard refugee settlements against COVID-19.

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UNHCR is providing humanitarian aid, such as emergency weatherproofing to secure homes, to those affected by the explosion. © UNHCR/ H.Darwish

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