UNHCR loses key aid for Lebanon in Beirut warehouse fire
BEIRUT, Lebanon, September 8 (UNHCR) - A fire at a Beirut warehouse has destroyed nearly US$600,000 worth of relief items belonging to the UN refugee agency, seriously harming the UNHCR programme to assist Lebanese who are trying to rebuild their homes after the recent war.
The fire initially broke out at three in the afternoon local time on Thursday, destroying most of the goods at the main UNHCR warehouse in Lebanon but leaving the building largely undamaged. A fire in the ashes that ignited again on Friday was quickly brought under control.
The fire on Thursday destroyed 3,753 tents, worth US$100 each. In addition, UNHCR lost 36,642 blankets, 3,753 mattresses, 2,730 plastic sheets and 62 rolls of plastic. The total value of the destroyed items, most of the total stores in the warehouse, was placed at US$578,708.
"This will seriously impact our operation," said Stephane Jaquemet, UNHCR representative in Lebanon, who rushed to the scene of the blaze. "Every piece that has been lost is something that cannot now be distributed to the Lebanese who needed this assistance."
However, Jaquemet emphasized that UNHCR convoys will continue to carry emergency aid into villages devastated by the war, providing items like tents and blankets that Lebanese returning to their destroyed and damaged houses need while they rebuild. UNHCR has other stock in smaller warehouses in the southern cities of Tyre and Sidon.
The fire broke out in a stockpile outside the main UNHCR warehouse in the port area of Beirut and spread quickly, with smoke seen across the Lebanese capital. Although fire fighters arrived in minutes, it took more than an hour to bring the blaze under control. A labourer who tried to put out the fire suffered a slight cut, but was released after treatment at hospital.
The warehouse, which was provided to UNHCR free of charge by the Lebanese government, suffered damage to doors and windows. The cause of the fire is unknown, but preliminary investigations pointed to an accident, authorities said.
While large amounts of UNHCR emergency supplies have been distributed or transferred to warehouses in Sidon and Tyre, the Beirut warehouse was the agency's main facility in Lebanon. UNHCR supplies arriving from outside the country are initially held in the Beirut warehouse, awaiting onward distribution.
As is usual during emergency situations like the one in Lebanon, the emergency supplies were not insured. UNHCR is funded through voluntary contributions.
UNHCR launched an emergency programme for Lebanon as soon as fighting broke out in mid-July, deploying extra staff to the region and starting a flow of emergency aid even during the fighting. The pace increased after a cessation of hostilities nearly four weeks ago allowed UNHCR to bring aid by air as well as sea and road.
The initial assistance was aimed at providing items like tents and blankets to those in need of shelter because they were displaced or they had returned to find their houses shattered. A second phase of UNHCR assistance is aimed largely at assisting the rebuilding of houses.
By Laure Chedrawi in Beirut, Lebanon