30 April 2020 - Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia

Locusts, floods and COVID-19: a potentially deadly combination for malnourished children across the Horn of Africa

 A new wave of locusts around farming area near Hargeisa, Somaliland.
  • Crops critical for feeding malnourished children across Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia are expected to be decimated as locusts hatch from May.
  • A loss of income due to COVID-19 restrictions puts further pressure on vulnerable families.
  • More than one million people need emergency food assistance following the first wave of locusts, a Save the Children co-authored assessment finds.
  • A severe flood risk is once again threatening communities around the Shebelle and Juba Rivers in Ethiopia and Somalia.

A new wave of locust lands on farmland near Hargeisa, Somaliland on 20th April 2020. More photos and video are available here.

The return of swarms of desert locusts – with more expected to hatch in May – 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 is warning.

This month communities across the Horn of Africa, which are already reeling from the impact of COVID-19, are contending with new swarms of locusts. 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[1], 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[2], 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[3].  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[4].

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. Commodity prices already up by over 2 per cent[5] 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[6].

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[7]. 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. 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.

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[8].  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, it is feared the locusts will have wrecked the same or worse levels of damage during their first wave of impact.

Yvonne Arunga, Save the Children’s Regional Operations Director for East and Southern Africa, said:

2020 will be a defining year for a generation of children across the Horn of 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. As a result, already tenuous livelihoods are being completely obliterated.

“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. Our staff are also suffering - many of them are from the very communities which they serve. They are having to adapt to continue to deliver essential services while keeping themselves and the children they work with safe. To say this is unprecedented is an understatement. 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.”

Save the Children is working closely with government, the United Nations and partners across the Horn of Africa to ensure nutrition screening and health programs continue, despite the challenges posed by COVID-19. Adaptive initiatives are taking place, including remote training of nutrition staff, protection, promotion and support of breastfeeding practices, doubling distributions of nutrition supplies to families to reduce the number of times the family needs to come in contact with health facilities and upgrading health and nutrition facilities so they are COVID-19 safe.

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  • In Kenya, Save the Children is working with partners and the government to create awareness in communities on the ongoing locust control operations across affected regions. These messages include information about the locusts, what is being done to combat the surge, and safety measures before, during and after spraying, including advice to farmers about how to protect children from exposure to pesticides.
  • In Ethiopia, Save the Children supported the assessment on the impact of desert locusts on household livelihoods and food security and is participating in the Ethiopia Desert Locust Alliance. In addition, Save the Children is providing child protection technical support to the UN’s FAO and the Ministry of Agriculture to ensure the voices and unique vulnerability of children is taken into account during control efforts and future livelihood and food security assessments.
  • In Somalia, Save the Children has been supporting communities to prepare for the potential risks caused by multiple humanitarian crisis of COVID-19 and food insecurity. The organization has been working with the Ministry of Health to raise public awareness on how community members can protect themselves and contain the spread of the virus. In addition, Save the Children is currently scaling up cash programming in Somalia to respond to the family financing and food security crisis brought on by the economic fallout of covid-19 containment measures. We are currently delivering cash to more than 50,000 households and will be looking to expand this to another 70,000 households.

[5] March Consumer Price Index published by the Federal Directorate of National Statistics indicates an increase of up to 2.12 per cent http://www.dns.org.so/consumer-price-index-cpi-march-2020/

[6] Personal remittances, received (current US$) in Somalia, Kenya and Ethiopia combined [World Bank] https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/BX.TRF.PWKR.CD.DT?most_recent_value_desc=true

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