Floods, locusts and COVID-19: UN agencies warn Somalia's gains at risk from 'triple threat'

2 Jun 2020

Floods, locusts and COVID-19: UN agencies warn Somalia's gains at risk from 'triple threat'

Mogadishu – The political and security gains made by Somalia over recent years could be at risk of reversal if swift action is not taken by the international community to help local authorities avert a major humanitarian crisis due to the combined effect of devastating floods, desert locusts and the widespread impact of COVID-19.

“Somalia’s coping mechanisms are significantly less than those of the neighbouring countries. Therefore, the impact [of floods, locusts and COVID-19] is not simply humanitarian but has the potential to reverse some of the political and security gains that the international community has invested in over the past decade,” said Justin Brady of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Somalia.

“We need to continue to work together and expand the coordination with the private sector, civil society and have more engagement with the diaspora,” added Mr. Brady, OCHA’s Head of Office in the Horn of Africa country.

Close to 500,000 people have been displaced by recent floods in Somalia’s central regions, while the country is also dealing with a severe locust infestation which threatens food security and nutrition for many. At the same time, Somalia has been responding to the COVID-19 pandemic’s spread.

Mr. Brady said the UN’s warning takes into account Somalia’s inherent structural weaknesses, which make the country far more vulnerable than the other countries in the region, and calls for an “all hands on deck approach to avert the worst.” 

Displaced by floods 

Since November last year, the UN has been working closely with local authorities and partners to determine and meet the most urgent needs of Somalis affected by floods, including dispatching emergency supplies and providing life-saving services through partners on the ground. The assistance continues to this day.

“The UN has been deploying shelter and non-food items as well as looking at the potential for infectious diseases such as acute watery diarrhea, cholera and malnutrition that often emerge during the time of floods,” Mr. Brady said.

While some half a million people have been displaced, overall, more than a million people have been affected by flash and riverine floods in Somalia. One of the hardest hit areas is Belet Weyne, which first experienced severe flooding late last year, when the Shabelle River burst its banks due to heavy rains.

“We have about 240,000 people who were displaced from their homes,” said Abdikarim Hussein Abdi, the Programme Manager for Development Action Network, a local non-governmental organization (NGO) responding to the needs of affected communities. “The floods submerged people’s markets and businesses, thereby leaving many people without any source of income. Commodity prices have skyrocketed, harvests have been destroyed and the little food coming to the market is too expensive.”

Speaking at a camp for internally displaced persons at Ceel Jaale, in Belet Weyne, Hawa Gedi, a mother of four, asked for more help for the many families whose livelihoods were destroyed.

“I was displaced from Bula Qodah by floods and settled here at Ceel Jaale,” Hawa said. “We are grateful to the humanitarian agencies for providing us with water and other basic needs, but we need more support. We need food. We have nothing to eat.”

Since 1990, Somalia has experienced 30 climate-related hazards, 12 droughts and 18 floods – three times more the number of climate-related hazards experienced between 1970 and 1990. In 2017, a severe drought left Somalia on the verge of famine. In 2019, a delayed and erratic Gu’ rainy season resulted in the poorest harvest since the 2011 famine and flooding.

COVID-19 response

Like so many other countries, Somalia has been responding to COVID-19 within its borders. It registered its first COVID-19 case in March 2020 and has since seen a surge in the number of cases, with cases reported from all Federal Member States.

The pandemic has led to major socio-economic disruptions across Somalia, including a reduction in remittances from the diaspora, itself a mainstay for many Somalis, and a reduction in casual labour opportunities due to COVID-19 restrictions, making it difficult for many to cope.

“Coronavirus has affected our business. Three or four people cannot enter the shop at once, so we now serve customers one-by-one. Added to that, there is no port in Baidoa so we rely on supplies from Mogadishu and Dubai but flights were suspended so many of our businesses are at a standstill,” said Malyun Mohammed, a beauty shop-owner in Baidoa, in the South West State.

The World Health Organization (WHO), working closely with the Federal Government of Somalia (FGS) and a consortium of bilateral partners, set up three testing centres in Hargeisa in Somaliland, Garowe in Puntland and in the Somali capital of Mogadishu, with plans to increase the number of testing centres.

Additionally, WHO is supporting patient and case management in all isolation centres, providing salaries to newly recruited health care workers and strengthening community mobilisation and engagement, especially in the area of case detection and tracing.

Locust threat

“We have a situation of the two problems of floods and COVID-19 converging and reinforcing the impact on the population, and then we have the locusts. We expect to see a portion of the crops this year lost to the locust infestation, which will compound the food security and nutrition situation for many Somalis,” Brady said.

Working in concert with the Federal Government of Somalia, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), with the support of other agencies, acquired equipment to help eradicate the locusts in infested areas in locations such as Hargeisa, Galmudug and Puntland. The infestation is Somalia’s worst outbreak in 25 years.

The FAO Country Representative in Somalia, Etienne Peterschmitt, believes that the impact of the current desert locust outbreak in Somalia could, by September 2020, increase the number of Somalis facing food insecurity or severe hunger by half a million.

FAO has strengthened the capacity for ground control with the purchase of 18 Land Cruiser vehicles, complementing another 15 vehicles hired for surveillance and control in north and central Somalia. Twelve vehicle-mounted sprayers and ten backpack sprayers have also been delivered in Hargeisa and Mogadishu, in addition to ten vehicle-mounted sprayers brought from Morocco and Mali to support control efforts in Somalia. 

Three helicopters are being mobilized to Somalia to carry out aerial control operations. A new consignment of 2,000 kilograms of biopesticides has also been delivered, and more staff hired. As a result of the concerted efforts between the Federal Government and FAO, by mid-April, some 31,000 hectares had already been covered out of the 360,000 hectares estimated to be affected across the country.

Funding gap

Both OCHA and WHO have described the floods, locusts and COVID-19 as an unprecedented “triple threat,” which needed adequate funding to fight against. 

Somalia was already struggling with floods and an invasion of desert locusts in the northern parts of the country when COVID-19 struck, further aggravating the situation by putting pressure on the country’s fragile health system, thereby causing a major public health crisis.

“Unless we are able to rapidly scale up our response operations, unless we get adequate funding from our donors, we will not be able to respond to this need of the government and that window is closing very rapidly,” sad the WHO Country Representative for Somalia, Dr. Mamunur Rahman Malik.

According to WHO, the funding gaps are in the areas of case management, surveillance and laboratory diagnostics and coordination. Without this, the response to COVID-19 is hampered.

“What we are seeing in Somalia is cases remain undiagnosed, undetected, the self-isolation and quarantine measures are not working as efficiently as we expect them to work,” Dr. Malik said.

In March 2020, the Federal Government launched the National Preparedness and Response Plan for COVID-19, seeking $57 million for the next six months.

On its part, WHO and other agencies require $25.7 million to support the Federal Government in critical response areas. However, only 20 per cent of this has been funded, leaving a huge funding gap.

FAO and the Federal Government require $57 million to bring the locust infestation under control. Some $24.2 million had been made available by donors by 1 May. 

In responding to the floods, locusts and COVID-19, the UN and its partners are working to ensure that emergency and development assistance complement each other, in line with the Federal Government’s National Development Plan to achieve long-term recovery and resilience.