Locusts, Floods & Covid-19 Combination Could Become Deadly in East Africa, Warns Aid Agency

ADDIS ABEA – The second wave of desert locusts coupled with the impact of COVID-19 and a return of flood season will devastate the chances of survival for malnourished children in Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya, Save the Children warned today.

Countries in the sub-region, which are already reeling from the impact of COVID-19, are contending with new swarms of locusts.

“2020 will be a defining year for a generation of children across the Horn of Africa,” said Yvonne Arunga, Save the Children’s Regional Operations Director for East and Southern Africa.

“COVID-19 comes at a time when children and their families are already dealing with multiple crises that include recurrent climatic shocks, conflict and a locust invasion,” Arunga continued.

“As a result, already tenuous livelihoods are being completely obliterated,” he added.
The unusually wet period between the short rains of 2019 and the long rains of 2020 has encouraged egg laying by the swarms, with new waves already seen in parts of Ethiopia and Somalia.

A single female locust can lay up to 158 eggs at a time, and with tens of millions of locusts currently laying eggs, it is expected that once they hatch in May, vast new swarms will rise in June and July in time for the harvest, further decimating crucial crops.

Government locust control operations, including training staff and spraying pesticides, are facing challenges due to COVID-19 restrictions.

The rains have also led to a dramatic increase in river levels of the Shabelle basin both in Ethiopia and Somalia, with the river around the town of Beledweyne rising to up to 6 meters on Monday.

It’s feared the river will flood this week and into early May, endangering over 240,000 people, many of whom were already affected when devastating floods hit the region in October and November 2019.

“The new locust swarms, repeated extreme weather events, and a reliance on forms of income that are impacted by COVID-19 restrictions – such as tourism and remittances – has put unprecedented pressure on highly vulnerable, malnourished families across the Horn of Africa,” says Save the Children.

Commodity prices already up by over 2 per cent in Somalia – a substantial increase for families living below the poverty line – and Save the Children’s staff are being told of families skipping meals due to increased food prices.

Remittances, a vital family support mechanism and an anchor of many livelihoods across the region, have been impacted by lockdowns, layoffs and trade disruptions.

At least 5.2 million children under five are already acutely malnourished across Somalia, Kenya and Ethiopia, including nearly 1.3 million children who are severely malnourished and at risk of starvation, according to Save the Children.

Given existing levels of hunger, locusts devastating crops, the impact of COVID-19 and erratic weather patterns, nutrition experts are expecting a substantial increase in emergency nutrition needs in the coming months, it said.

“Children with a poor diet, particularly in the early months and years of life, have an increased risk of illness, infections and stunting, which can impact their intellectual development, productivity and health in adulthood,” the aid agency said.

An assessment of the impact of the first wave of the desert locusts in Ethiopia, co-authored by Save the Children, found that nearly one million people already require emergency food assistance as a direct result of the locusts.

The assessment further found that up to 1.3 million hectares of farmland was damaged by the locusts and cereal prices had increased by about 50 percent from 2019.

While similar assessments are yet to be completed in Kenya and Somalia, the aid agency said it is feared the locusts will have wrecked the same or worse levels of damage during their first wave of impact.

“I’ve seen the work our staff are doing Somalia, Kenya and Ethiopia to save young lives and help vulnerable families, but the scale at the moment is truly overwhelming,” Arunga said.

“To say this is unprecedented is an understatement,” the regional director said. “We need resources. We need people. And we need global support. Even though the world is reeling, we cannot forget the most vulnerable amongst us.”