Lessons Amid the Rubble: How Volunteers, Collaboration Drove Beirut Blast Debris Assessment

On 4 August 2020, a powerful explosion rocked the Port of Beirut leaving more than 200 dead and around 300,000 homeless. United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), country team backed by SURGE advisors, was on the ground within 24 hours to assist in recovery and rehabilitation. The blast caused $15 billion in property damage and one of the top priorities of UNDP was to conduct an assessment to understand what and how much of debris had been generated.

Such an exercise is crucial in the aftermath of a destructive event to ensure timely and environmentally-sound removal of the debris. For this purpose, UNDP joined hands with the European Union (EU) and Frontline Engineers, a group of volunteers supporting rescue work on the ground.

“We used the Crisis Bureau’s Household and Building Damage Assessment survey and tailored it to the local context,” said Jihan Seoud, Head of Programme, UNDP Country Office Lebanon. Within 6 weeks, the team finalized the surveys with feedback from partners, translated and modeled them into a mobile application, trained 75 engineers and, finally, worked with them to conduct the assessment.

Volunteers on the ground assessed the debris and buildings in terms of size and material which aided in the estimation of the volume and type of waste materials. “The knowledge received from the trainings allowed the volunteers to raise awareness on the alarming environmental impact of the blast,” said Eng. Jad Ajib, Founder of Frontline Engineers.

The results showed that total estimated weight of construction and demolition waste in the most damaged area of Beirut was more than a million tonnes — almost three times the weight of the Empire State Building in New York! The estimated glass was more than 14,000 tonnes.

Paving the way for safe recovery

  1. Health and safety measures: UNDP went on to design awareness materials based on the assessment that was shared with the volunteers and first responders. The literature enabled them to take appropriate precautionary measures while removing the debris.
  2. Sustainable waste management: UNDP is working with the government to design a sustainable waste management plan for which it is using the debris assessment. The goal is to recycle, reuse and dispose the waste in the most environmentally sound manner.
  3. Long-term recovery: The results of the assessments were integrated in the World Bank, EU and UN recovery strategy for Lebanon. The report was also used by NGOs and other stakeholders to devise immediate and long-term development projects.

Lessons for the future

Build your network of volunteers

It’s important to have a network of volunteers and experts that can boost rescue and recovery efforts. UNDP was fortunate to collaborate with more than 75 enthusiastic and competent volunteers. Their support in developing and carrying out the surveys proved critical in ensuring the assessments were completed in a timely manner. UNDP was also able to tap into its pool of experts remotely — another important resource — to digitally support post-disaster work in Lebanon.

Set clear objectives

In a crisis situation, it is difficult to curtail the bias for immediate action and not dive straight into an assessment. This experience shows that taking some time in the beginning to define clear objectives (goal and focus of the surveys) proved critical in producing a tailored report. “It is also important to take a holistic, long-term approach that is based on UNDP’s value-add,” Janthomas Hiemstra, Head of Country Support Management Team at the Crisis Bureau.

Complement and coordinate, not duplicate

Such efforts reap the best outcome if done in a collaborative manner. In the aftermath of a crisis, there are several assessments being conducted by different organizations. Finding ways to build on existing surveys and joining forces with partners and stakeholders can help achieve better results. UNDP tried to do the same with its partners like EU, Frontline Engineers and other UN agencies on the ground.

Consider the national context

Knowing the national context helps devise tailored interventions. For debris assessments, more specifically, it is crucial to have a prior understanding of how demolition waste is disposed locally, the level of expertise of first responders and technical organizations operative on the ground. UNDP’s local networks and knowledge helped effectively complete the assessment within two months.

SURGE is UNDP’s signature solution for rapid and effective crisis response.

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