Locusts flying around near Hargeisa, Somaliland

A new wave of locusts around farming area near Hargeisa, Somaliland.

Locusts, Floods and COVID-19: A Potentially Deadly Combination for Malnourished Children Across the Horn of Africa

FAIRFIELD, Conn. (April 29, 2020) The resurgence 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 warns.

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] With tens of millions of locusts currently laying eggs, once they hatch in May, vast new swarms will likely 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 19 feet 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 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 percent[5] in Somalia – a substantial increase for families living below the poverty line. 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 the locusts damaged up to 3.2 million acres of farmland, 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.

“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. 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,” Arunga added.

“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 governments, 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 such as remote training of nutrition staff, protection, promotion and support of breastfeeding practices are taking place. As well as 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

Learn more about Save the Children’s work in the Horn of Africa.

[1] FAO
[2] FAO [21 April 2020]
[3] Somalia Foods Update
[4] Concerns Remain for Children Affected by Floods in Somalia
[5] March Consumer Price Index published by the Federal Directorate of National Statistics indicates an increase of up to 2.12 percent
[6] Personal remittances, received (current US$) in Somalia, Kenya and Ethiopia combined [World Bank]
[7] 2020 Global Report on Food Crisis
[8] Impact of Desert Locust Infestation on Household Livelihoods and Food Security in Ethiopia: Joint Assessment Findings

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