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New IRC report: Almost five million people at risk of hunger and famine as swarms of desert locusts destroy crops across East Africa

A fourth generation of desert locusts up to 8,000 times larger than previous swarms could destroy crops and leave millions facing food insecurity and famine. This the most serious desert locust outbreak seen in East Africa.

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  • The potential damage of the locusts could affect a tenth of the world's population.
  • The outbreak is hitting Somalia the hardest, with Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda and South Sudan also heavily impacted.
  • Women are facing increased risks of violence and economic hardship as a result.
  • Previous swarms have already damaged tens of thousands of hectares of cropland and pasture.

Almost five million people could be plunged into hunger and famine as a fourth round of desert locusts hatch and ravage crops across the Horn and East Africa, compounding an already dire food situation worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic. The infestation, which first arrived in East Africa last June, is feeding on hundreds of thousands of hectares of crops across at least eight countries. Another round of hatching could produce swarms up to 8,000 times larger than the first generation earlier this year. The IRC is calling for a major ramp up of preventive measures to stop the swarms from destroying lives and spreading across West Africa and to the Indo-Pakistan border.

Barri Shorey, Senior Director of Economic Recovery for the International Rescue Committee, said,

“The Desert Locust is the world’s most dangerous migratory pest. A one-square-kilometer locust swarm is capable of consuming the same amount of food in one day as approximately 35,000 people. The worst outbreak in 70 years is combined with a year of drought and flooding, and now a COVID-19 pandemic preventing people from working and farming, poses an unprecedented risk to food security. Without an immediate increase of prevention measures, we could be on the verge of famine like we have never seen before.”

Like all crises, women and girls are experiencing the locust outbreak differently. Female-headed households remain particularly vulnerable as women manage their crops as well as the additional unpaid labor within the home. It is important to specifically account for the challenges women and girls face in response efforts. 

Somalia is being hit the hardest. Already, more than half of IRC supported communities’ land have been affected by the latest infestation. The country, which was still recovering from the severe 2017 drought, was hit by another drought in 2019 and has since seen massive flooding and now a spiralling COVID-19 pandemic. Without immediate help, 3.5 million people are projected to face a food crisis in Somalia. 

Sahal Farah, Community Resilience Committee Vice Chairman for Docol, an IRC partner organisation, said, “This is the worst locust invasion we have seen in our generation; it has destroyed pastures, contaminated water sources and displaced many pastoral households. The worst part is that we do not have the capacity to control it, and so far, we have not received any external support.” Without intervention, the Food and Agriculture Organization predicts a 50-70 percent cereal harvest loss in Somalia. The IRC estimates that 5,000 households, especially those headed by women, currently do or will need urgent humanitarian assistance by August if harvests fail and market prices rise. The IRC is scaling up multipurpose cash assistance and farming support to reach all 5,000 at risk households.

The IRC is engaged in a desert locust task force in Somalia, informing the community on best practices to control the outbreak, training Community Resilience Committees (CRC) on control measures and providing farming and agriculture support to locust affected smallholder farmers. But, the IRC is only a portion of those working to help those impacted by this devastating plague. In 2017, the world came together to prevent famine in Somalia. This can be done again. With more funding, the IRC and its partner organisations can reach more of the most vulnerable, particularly women and girls, and prevent a devastating hunger crisis.

The IRC has launched a US $30 million appeal to help us mitigate the spread of coronavirus among the world’s most vulnerable populations. We are working across three key areas: to mitigate and respond to the spread of coronavirus within vulnerable communities; protect IRC staff; and ensure the continuation of our life-saving programming as much as possible across more than 40 countries worldwide.

About the IRC

The International Rescue Committee responds to the world’s worst humanitarian crises, helping to restore health, safety, education, economic wellbeing, and power to people devastated by conflict and disaster. Founded in 1933 at the call of Albert Einstein, the IRC is at work in over 40 countries and 29 U.S. cities helping people to survive, reclaim control of their future and strengthen their communities. Learn more at www.rescue-uk.org and follow the IRC on Twitter & Facebook.