Amid recent and promising signs of recovery following nearly 30 years of turmoil, Somalia again finds itself in crisis. This time, the threat is threefold; a global pandemic, the return of seasonal flooding, and a new generation of desert locusts— at once invisible and visible, relentless, and indiscriminate in laying waste to lives and livelihoods. Short of a massive and urgent response to help the country and affected communities absorb the blow and to aid in their recovery, millions of Somalis could face acute food insecurity—or worse—in coming months.
A month and a half after the first confirmed case of COVID-19 (coronavirus), the capital Mogadishu and much of the country remains under lockdown—with commercial flights grounded and schools, offices, and borders closed—in a bid to curb the virus’s spread. As of mid-May, there are more than 1,050 confirmed cases and 51 deaths have been reported; the highest death toll in East Africa, though the real numbers are likely far higher, given scarce testing capacity outside of Somalia’s major urban centers.
If this wasn’t alarming enough, the worst desert locust upsurge in a generation now threatens a direct hit on the country’s food production systems. In recent months, locust swarms have spread across 44 Somali districts, affecting an estimated 180,000 hectares of rangelands and laying eggs along their path. With a whole new generation of locusts—20 times larger in population than the last—emerging at the start of the main growing season, the timing couldn’t be worse. This is just as grasses and other fresh vegetation for goats, sheep, cattle, and camels and tender shoots of maize, sorghum, cowpeas, and other staple crops are pushing up from the soil—a favorite food of the nymphs and the young, voracious hopper bands and airborne swarms.
Since Somalia’s domestic production of staple foods meets less than one-fourth of the country’s needs after the years of conflict, the locusts pose a serious food security threat. This is especially true for rural communities, many of which are already living on the edge of subsistence at a time when climate change and increasingly erratic and extreme weather is crippling crop production systems, pastoral livelihoods, and traditional coping mechanisms.
Even before COVID-19 and the arrival of the locust swarms, nearly 1.1 million Somalis were severely food insecure, and more than 2.6 million were internally displaced. The number of acutely food insecure people is expected to climb to 1.3 million by mid-2020. Sustained and large-scale human and social development interventions, in addition to humanitarian assistance, will be needed to prevent more severe outcomes in many areas. Roughly 2.9 million more people are projected to be food stressed, bringing the total number of food insecure to 4.15 million. Further, nearly 1 million children under the age of five years will likely be acutely malnourished through December 2020, with one in six likely to be severely malnourished.
Figure 1 – Potential Losses and Damages from Desert Locusts in 2020 (in US$ millions)
With almost ideal breeding conditions, the desert locust upsurge is likely to cause large-scale economic losses and damages in Somalia, as elsewhere in the region. The World Bank estimates that damages and losses to crop and livestock production and associated assets could reach $670 million in Somalia alone by the end of 2020 if no action is taken or if control measures fail to reduce locust populations and control their spread. Even if ongoing and planned measures are highly effective, damages and losses are likely to exceed $200 million.
Safeguarding productive assets and livelihoods, especially the most vulnerable, will by all measures cost exponentially less over the long run. During times of crisis, vulnerable households adopt negative coping mechanisms to meet their short-term needs, such as consuming lower value but less nutritious food, selling off productive assets, and withdrawing children from school. These negative coping mechanisms have long-lasting impacts on health and the accumulation of human capital.
The Food and Agriculture Organization and Somalia’s Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation have issued an updated joint appeal to the international community for $56.9 million to fund emergency control measures and provision of mostly in-kind farming (seeds and tools) and pastoral packages (feed cubes and animal supplements) to about 74,500 affected households.
Curbing the spread of the locust population is a paramount priority for affected countries, but in Somalia, control efforts pose a particular challenge on multiple fronts. First, the country is still facing a major security challenge from a terrorist insurgency that controls rural areas in the southern part of the country where access by ground spraying teams is consequently limited. Second, lockdown measures in place to curb the spread of COVID-19 are disrupting not only supply chains critical to food production (i.e., seeds, fertilizers, animal feed, expertise) but also those critical to supporting the efficient and effective mobilization of locust control measures.
As if COVID-19 and locusts swarms weren’t enough, several regions have been hit in recent weeks by flash floods, including parts of Bay and Bakool, and by major flooding along the Juba River, as seasonal monsoon-like rains intensified in the Ethiopian highlands and across Somalia. The Shabelle River is on the verge of breaching its embankments, endangering more than 240,000 people, many of whom are still recovering from devastating floods that hit the region in October and November 2019.
Somalia’s humanitarian and international development partners are quickly ramping up support to the government-led response efforts to COVID-19, the desert locust upsurge, and seasonal flooding by carrying out assessments and providing food and/or cash assistance, water, sanitation, hygiene, health and shelter to affected communities.
The World Bank is also moving swiftly to support the government’s response to the three-fold crises. In addition to fast-track financing via the Crisis Response Window, the Bank is mobilizing the regional multi-phase Emergency Locust Response Program to help Somalia and other countries in the greater Horn of Africa region combat the desert locust upsurge, protect their human capital and productive assets, and facilitate medium- to long-term recovery and resilience.