Caught between extremes: Violence, drought, flooding, and now a locust invasion

Caught between extremes: Violence, drought, flooding, and now a locust invasion

People in the Horn of Africa are increasingly caught between extremes. In 2019 the region see-sawed between crippling drought and devastating floods, eroding already-fragile livelihoods and forcing people to abandon their homes. Many of them were already displaced from their homes by violence.
Article 05 February 2020 Kenya Ethiopia Somalia

Today, these communities face yet another threat: locusts.

Ethiopia, Somalia, and Kenya are facing their worst locust outbreak in decades. Millions of locusts are moving from community to community, devouring hundreds of kilometres of vegetation. For farmers who already lost their crops to droughts and floods, the pests are a particularly devastating blow. Somalia declared a national emergency for fear the swarms will deepen already dire levels of food insecurity and malnutrition in the country.

"The locusts are coming on the heels of a year marked by conditions that were either too hot and dry or too wet," said Juerg Eglin, Head of ICRC Delegation for Somalia. "People already on the run from violence saw their animals wither and die in drought, their crops washed away by floodwaters, and now what remains be eaten by locusts. There is only so much families can withstand."

A seemingly endless drought

63-year-old Sowdhe Ali recounts owning 400 goats and 5 camels in 2016 before the start of the drought. In 2019, his herd had been reduced to just 50 animals. Photo: Anisa Hussein
63-year-old Sowdhe Ali recounts owning 400 goats and 5 camels in 2016 before the start of the drought. In 2019, his herd had been reduced to just 50 animals. Photo: Anisa Hussein

The Horn of Africa was in the middle a drought at the start of 2019. From March to May 2019, rainfall was less than 50 percent of the annual average across the Horn of Africa.

Communities in Somalia feared that they would experience a severe drought similar to the one they faced between the years of 2016 and 2017. When the Gu rains finally came, they were late and not enough. Crops failed, and it became increasingly difficult for communities to keep their livestock alive.

"I had 400 goats and five camels in 2016," said Ali, a 63-year-old father of 11 children who lives in Somalia's Galgaduud region. "The drought ate 100 of my goats and three camels. Then came 2017: out of the 300 goats remaining, the drought again claimed 150 goats and the remaining two camels. I started 2018 with a total of 150 goats which were decimated, leaving me with only 40. This year (2019) I have a small heard of 50—weak, but alive."

After months of eking out a living on parched earth, people then faced a barrage of torrential rain that unleashed the worst floods in decades.

A case of severe flooding

Children wade across land flooded by severe rains that have hit much of western Kenya. Heavy rains were experienced Kenya which killed crops and displaced tens of thousands of people in parts of the country. Photo: Mackenzie Knowles-Coursin / ICRC
Children wade across land flooded by severe rains that have hit much of western Kenya. Heavy rains were experienced Kenya which killed crops and displaced tens of thousands of people in parts of the country. Photo: Mackenzie Knowles-Coursin / ICRC
A flooded home in Osodo, Homa Bay, Kenya. In 2019, heavy rains have hit Kenya particularly hard and affected the lives of tens of thousands of people. Photo: Mackenzie Knowles-Coursin / ICRC
A flooded home in Osodo, Homa Bay, Kenya. In 2019, heavy rains have hit Kenya particularly hard and affected the lives of tens of thousands of people. Photo: Mackenzie Knowles-Coursin / ICRC

The rain that fell across the Horn of Africa from October to November was three times above average. The unusually high amount of rainfall was blamed on high temperatures in the Indian Ocean that led to higher evaporation followed by precipitation inland. The result of this was heavy rainfall and severe flooding. Crops were lost, and livestock swept away.

Kenya saw 31 of its 47 counties affected by flash floods and overflowing rivers. Many suffered landslides that destroyed homes and livelihoods. The Kenya Red Cross estimated in December that some 160,000 people were affected by flooding or mudslides triggered by the heavy rains. Kenya Red Cross volunteers helped families evacuate to safer areas and delivered emergency relief items.

On top of these heavy rains, Somalia was also hit at the end of the year by Cyclone Pawan, which triggered even more flooding. In the town of Beledweyne, thousands of people were displaced, their crops destroyed, and their transport systems paralyzed. The Somali Red Crescent Society estimated that over 55,000 households were displaced as they rescued people from floodwaters by boat and raced to curb disease outbreaks.

The locust invasion

Theophilus Mwendwa, a local farmer in Kitui County, Kenya tries to chase away a swarm of desert locusts. Photo: EPA
Theophilus Mwendwa, a local farmer in Kitui County, Kenya tries to chase away a swarm of desert locusts. Photo: EPA

Today, with communities still reeling from a tumultuous 2019, a new threat has emerged: locusts.

Desert locusts, which can eat their own weight in food every day, have already destroyed large swaths of crops and pasture in Ethiopia, Somalia, and Kenya. New swarms keep emerging, each with the potential to travel 150 kilometres a day. If unchecked, the pests could spread even further, threatening communities in neighbouring South Sudan and Uganda.

Climate scientists say that the wet weather at the end of 2019 created perfect conditions for the pests. For people like Asha, who live in Ethiopia's Somali Regional State, the locusts destroyed what remained of her crops after being forced to flee her home because of violence and enduring droughts and floods.

When back-to-back climate shocks collide with violence, the results can be devastating. People can find themselves uprooted again and again from their homes. Their livelihoods and assets dwindle away. 2019 saw thousands of people in the region displaced from their homes by climate shocks or violence.

This locust invasion comes at a time when farming communities are preparing to harvest their crops between the months of March and April. The current situation could affect their livelihood and their means of survival in the coming months.

The true impact of the locust invasion is yet to be seen, but one thing is clear: climate extremes are increasingly becoming the norm in the Horn of Africa.