Beirut, the capital of Lebanon, was struck by a tremendous explosion on August 4, 2020. More than 200 people died, thousands were injured. Even more people lost access to drinking water, and the explosion has traumatized many of the city’s inhabitants. Two experts dispatched by Dutch Surge Support to provide aid relate their experiences.
After the considerable explosion in the port of Beirut, tens of thousands of people were unable to access clean drinking water. DSS (Dutch Surge Support) quickly dispatched Juan Luis López Frechilla as coordinator for the Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) sector. His job was to ensure that the NGOs present could make water available to the local population with maximum efficiency.
Bringing together different actors
In Beirut, Juan made sure that everybody was aligned on a shared strategy, while preventing any overlapping efforts. “I used to work on specific projects. But in Beirut it was different, I wasn’t digging water holes.” Rather, Juan Luis was making sure the right parties were facing the correct challenges.
At the same time, he provided the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) with up-to-date information. UNOCHA coordinates all the humanitarian activities, and Juan had to make sure that UNOCHA knew exactly what was going on. This, in turn, helped Juan to get approval for additional means and funds.
Since the beginning of the emergency NGOs restored water access for almost 20,000 people. “We have repaired the water networks in nearly 1,000 badly damaged buildings in the worst hit areas of Beirut. That’s not just one agency – it’s done by several agencies working in the sector coordinated by me. In fact, most work was done by two Lebanese organizations.”
Mental health support
While Juan was working on improving WASH, Mohamed Elshazly started his work for the DSS Mental Health and Psychosocial Support (MHPSS) programme to help the Beirut with the psychological fallout resulting from the explosion.
The day the earth stopped spinning in Beirut
The explosion came suddenly and took the residents of Beirut by surprise. The blast killed at least 190 people, injured thousands and left citizens and companies homeless. The explosion at the Beirut port had an enormous impact on the mental health and well-being of people who witnessed it. The explosion came at a time when the country had already gone through so much. First, a period of civil unrest and economic instability. Then COVID-19. And on top of it all, the massive explosion that not only shook the ground in Beirut but also left the entire world gasping for air.
The need for support became clear within minutes of the explosion. Once the dust had started to settle, rescue workers geared up to rescue whomever they could find in the rubble of the destroyed buildings. But Beirut needed more than physical rescues. Scaling up mental health and psychosocial support services has become a priority. Now Mohamed Elshazly has been deployed by the DSS MHPSS programme to support these efforts.
“I had to start working remotely, with plans to travel to Beirut as soon as I could,” Mohamed explains. He is hosted by the UNICEF country office in Lebanon, where he works together with the National Mental Health Programme, which is leading and coordinating the Mental Health and Psychosocial Support Taskforce.
At first, his work focused on supporting the cross-sectoral response to mental health and psychosocial needs. Now he also promotes evidence-based interventions. He also strengthens coordination mechanisms and consolidates emergency preparedness and response plans. “I hope my efforts will bring back beautiful days again in the lives of the people living in Beirut,” Mohamed says.
Dutch Surge Support (DSS) and Mental Health and Psychosocial Support (MHPSS)
DSS water is an initiative of the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and aims to provide countries across the globe with Dutch water expertise. The Netherlands Enterprise Agency (RVO) administers DSS together with the Netherlands Red Cross and the Netherlands Water Partnership (NWP). This aid aims to employ Dutch water-related expertise to keep regions habitable and save lives in case of disasters.
In 2020, at request of the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, DSS launched its Mental Health and Psychosocial Support (MHPSS) programme. This programme focuses on providing mental health support, and is run together with the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Federation of Red Cross Red Crescent Societies. DSS MHPSS contracts mental health experts and deploys them to crisis areas, where they work for UN organisations and locally active international humanitarian organisations.
An important source for more general information about the consequences of the explosion: