Triple Threat Of Floods, Locusts, & COVID-19 Plague Eastern Africa & Horn of Africa
Western Uganda was hit by a wave of flash floods in May after days of heavy rain caused major rivers to burst their banks.

East Africa and the Horn of Africa are facing a series of unprecedented overlapping disasters – widespread displacement and food insecurity caused by a record season of flooding and locusts, along with the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a new report released Thursday by the International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC).

Meanwhile, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the World Health Organization (WHO) signed a new collaboration agreement on Thursday, with the aim to support efforts to protect the 71 million forcibly displaced people around the world from COVID-19.

Widespread flooding in Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, South Sudan, Tanzania, Rwanda and Uganda during this year’s record wet season has displaced around 500,000 people and killed nearly 300. The flooding has also set back key interventions against the worst locust crisis the area has faced in decades, and created conditions ripe for COVID-19 transmission. 

Food insecurity, already exacerbated by the locust crisis and economic devastation due to the coronavirus, will likely be amplified. Nearly 18 million people across the region are already facing an acute food crisis. 

The ongoing flooding crisis is exacerbating other threats caused by COVID-19 and the invasion of locusts,” said IFRC Africa Director Simon Missiri in a press release. “Travel and movement restrictions meant to slow down the spread of COVID-19 are hampering efforts to combat swarms of locusts that are ravaging crops. Flooding is also a ‘threat amplifier’ with regards to the spread of COVID-19 as it makes it hard to implement preventive measures.” 

Many of the displaced people are being housed in crowded temporary shelters or internal displacement camps, where physical distancing to prevent the spread of COVID-19 is nearly impossible. 

As of Wednesday, two cases have already been confirmed in Dadaab camp in Kenya, the third largest refugee camp in the world, according to UNHCR and the Kenya Ministry of Health. As of Thursday night, there are 4,458 cases and 120 deaths across Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, South Sudan, Tanzania, Rwanda and Uganda, although the true numbers may be much higher due to limited testing capacities, according to IFRC.

Woman receives IFRC assistance after widespread flooding the Horn of Africa and East Africa
Increase In Food Insecurity Due To The Triple Threat

Additionally, the record wet season has hampered efforts to control the second wave of a deadly locust infestation, already estimated to be 20 times larger than the first invasion that began in late 2019. Nearly 18 million people in the region were already experiencing an “acute food and livelihood crisis” due to the locust invasion, according to the IFRC report, which classifies regions facing food insecurity using the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) scale.

The increased rainfall in fact promotes locust breeding and growth of wild vegetation that acts as locust food, according to Euloge Ishimwe, spokesperson for IFRC Africa.

The heavy rains rainfall recently experienced have caused a slowdown in locust control operations due to poor visibility during aerial spraying, and affected the movement of the spraying teams. This could have allowed continued locust destruction of crop and vegetation , further undermining the food security and livelihoods in the affected areas,”  said Ishimwe in an interview with Health Policy Watch

Why the Locust Problem Particularly Acute This Year?
(Photo: UN News)

Locusts typically breed and die in arid desert regions of the Sahara and the Arabian Peninsula. But unusually heavy regional rains over the past two years have greatly expanded the fertility of those remote breeding grounds – prompting locust swarms’ expansion and migration towards Yemen and Somalia. Those, in turn, are conflict zones where control activities are all the more difficult to carry out.

From there, the swarms have migrated even further across Ethiopia, South Sudan, Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, where heavy rains gave them yet more sites to multiply.

“This crisis is both natural and man-made,” Baldwyn Torto, a scientist specializing in locusts at the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology in Nairobi, Kenya, told the Christian Science Monitor. “There is a natural cycle of cyclones in this region, but there’s also so much insecurity in some parts of the region that the surveillance systems for locusts and other pests have broken down.”

Climate change is also contributing to the wet weather in normally arid areas, upon which locusts thrive, said Richard Munang, United Nations Environment Programme expert, in an interview with Reliefweb.int.  According to the World Metereological Organization, the last five years, hotter than any other since the industrial revolution, led to particularly web weather in Africa, which favours multiplication of locusts. Rains around the Horn of Africa from October to December 2019 were up to 400 per cent above normal rainfall amount. This abnormal rains were caused by the Indian Ocean dipole, a phenomenon accentuated by climate change.

Food insecurity – 100% Crop Loss in Worst Case Scenarios
Locusts swarming near a farm (Photo: UN News)

While the rains promote the growth of vegetation as locust food, African farmers displaced by flooding have also lost access to vital farmland, and are unable to harvest or replant crops during the most important planting season of the year, added Ishimwe.

“Harsh weather conditions are having a multiplier effect on an already difficult situation and this could potentially lead to worrying levels of food insecurity in the region,” said Missiri.

Loss of crops due to flooding and locusts, along with increased food prices due to supply chain disruptions caused by COVID-19, form a deadly combination that will exacerbate food insecurity in the East Africa and Horn of Africa region, said Ishimwe.

In a worst case scenario, there could be a nearly 100% loss of crops that the locusts feed upon, which include leaves and tender tissues of most food-producting plants, the IFRC report warns.

The IFRC has launched an emergency appeal for 1.8 million Swiss francs to help prevent 75,000 people from falling into deeper crises. Currently, the organisation has released over 7 million Swiss francs to local Red Cross and Red Crescent National Societies in East and Horn of Africa in order to provide food and non-food support to displaced populations. 

In Kenya, the Red Cross is conducting drone and satellite image assessments in 16 counties to observe the extent of damage caused by the overlapping disasters. Red Cross teams are also airlifting household items to families that have been marooned by floods, and UNHCR has doubled the amount of food rations distributed in Dadaab camp in an effort to cut down on crowding at distribution centers.

Filippo Grandi (left) and Dr Tedros (right) at the signing of a new agreement between WHO and UNHCR

WHO and UNHCR Sign Agreement To Protect Refugees Against COVID-19

WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and UNHCR High Commissioner Filippo Grandi signed an agreement Thursday to collaborate on protecting refugees in the COVID-19 pandemic. The agreement renews a partnership that WHO and UNHCR have sustained since 1997.

The UNHCR also joined the UN COVID-19 Solidarity Fund on Thursday, allowing it to access US$10 million to finance the COVID-19 response in five countries hosting the largest populations of refugees; Jordan, Kenya, Lebanon, South Sudan and Uganda. The emergency funding will go towards financing community mobilization, procurement of hygiene and medical equipment, and the construction of isolation units for COVID-19 patients.

“UNHCR’s long-term partnership with WHO is critical to curb the coronavirus pandemic and other emergencies – day in, day out, it is improving and saving lives of millions of people forced to flee their homes,” said Filippo Grandi in a press release.

Dr Tedros added that the signing of the agreement represents the “principle of solidarity and goal of serving vulnerable peoples” carried by both agencies.

“We stand side by side in our commitment to protect the health of all people who have been forced to leave their homes and to ensure that they can obtain health services when and where they need them. The ongoing pandemic only highlights the vital importance of working together so we can achieve more,”  said Dr Tedros.

Elaine Ruth Fletcher contributed to this story

Image Credits: IFRC, UN News , UN News, Twitter: @WHO.