Residents in Mandera County, Kenya, displaced by flooding.
The County Government of Mandera, Kenya.
Already navigating the coronavirus pandemic and the worst invasion of desert locusts for more than 25 years, parts of East Africa are now being devastated by flooding.
Heavy rains over the last month have led to overflowing rivers and lakes and mudslides, with Kenya particularly impacted. Almost 200 people have lost their lives and according to the Kenyan Red Cross, while hundreds of thousands have been internally displaced since the rainy season began in March.
Authorities and international organizations on the ground face an uphill battle against spiraling food insecurity, which had already been exacerbated by the locust outbreak, while at the same time working to curtail the spread of Covid-19, which remains the main focus of government resources.
Consecutive climate shocks
The latest floods have followed a series of intermittent droughts and flooding. Oxfam’s Director of Humanitarian Systems in Kenya, Matthew Cousins, told CNBC that these weather events and the locust outbreak are the latest in “a decade of back-to-back crises” linked to climate change.
“It’s a bit of a triple whammy really with Covid, locusts, floods, and it’s happening more and more often which is our primary concern,” Cousins told CNBC via telephone from Nairobi.
“Cycles between the droughts are getting a lot shorter, which impairs recovery time for herds for the poorest families to get their lives back. These areas are particularly vulnerable anyway, you’ve got underlying absolute poverty of anywhere up to 90% in some of the northern counties,” he explained.
Jemimah Khamadi Wekhomba, Kenya’s health and nutrition coordinator for Action Against Hunger, said NGOs and authorities on the ground have barely had time to respond to one crisis before another hits.
Residents in Mandera County, Kenya, assess the damage from the latest round of flooding which has devastated the region.
The County Government of Mandera, Kenya.
“These communities’ roads were cut off, their infrastructure was destroyed, communication was destroyed, the health facilities submerged, schools submerged,” she told CNBC.
Wekhomba added that thousands of displaced people had been forced to move into the houses of friends or relatives, or into makeshift camps in vacant schools, which presents new challenges to social distancing in the age of Covid-19.
“The issue is there is not enough funding in terms of a response because the needs keep on increasing over and over again. There is a need for funding which the government cannot support by itself,” she said, adding that the international community has a role to play.
The International Monetary Fund last week announced a $739 million disbursement to Kenya under its Rapid Credit Facility, aimed at tackling the coronavirus pandemic. So far, just 887 cases have been confirmed in the country, but policymakers are wary of the impact the virus could have if allowed to take root in densely populated informal settlements.
Wekhomba said policymakers and the affected communities were both “overwhelmed” by the scale and concurrence of the crises. She suggested that beyond the immediate response, funding will be required for a further three to five years to return affected communities to stability and better equip them to weather future shocks.
Residents in the county of West Pokot, Kenya, retrieve a body after a recent mudslide.
The county government of West Pokot, Kenya.
“People are talking about the effects of climate change, but we are here. We are already facing the effects of climate change,” she told CNBC.
“There is a need to support these communities in terms of knowing how to handle their shocks and bounce back to their normal lives.”
At a press conference last week, Eugene Wamalwa, the Kenyan cabinet Secretary for Devolution, appealed to Kenyans living in areas susceptible to floods and landslides to relocate to safer ground, with the situation expected to worsen in the coming weeks as rains persist until June.
Wamalwa noted that the last time Lake Victoria reached current levels was in the 1950s, while Lake Naivasha has reached levels not seen since 1961.
Along with ravaging crops and communities directly, the rains also favor the locusts’ reproduction, with a second wave anticipated around June, coinciding with harvest season and further adding to the mounting humanitarian crisis.
Return of the locusts
According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), more than 20 million people are in severe acute food insecurity in East Africa.
A single Desert Locust swarm, which can contain up to 150 million insects per square kilometer, is capable of eating as much food in a day as 35,000 people. It is thought to be the most destructive migratory pest in the world.
The FAO’s Desert Locust appeal, launched in January, has now requested $153 million in external funding and currently covers 10 countries — Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Uganda, Tanzania and Yemen.
Locusts swarm acros a highway at Lerata village, near Archers Post in Samburu county, approximately 300 kilomters (186 miles) north of Kenyan capital, Nairobi on January 22, 2020. (Photo by TONY KARUMBA / AFP) (Photo by TONY KARUMBA/AFP via Getty Images)
Tony Karumba/AFP via Getty Images
If left unchecked, the FAO estimates that the locusts could multiply 400 times by the end of June. Oxfam is coordinating with local partner organizations on the ground in affected areas across northern and eastern Kenya, who are working to track the swarms and deploy aerial and ground pesticide operations.
“I don’t think they will be able to get on top of this swarm, so we will be looking at a third wave a little bit later on, and then after that, the locusts will naturally migrate with the winds back up north and then out over the Arabian sea to parts of the Middle East, or more likely Iran,” Oxfam’s Cousins said.
He added that communities have “very little room for maneuver” in terms of food security should the next wave coincide with harvest season in June.
“With Covid and the floods hampering transport connections, the pesticides have been slow coming in, because they’re normally brought in by flight and now they have to be brought in by sea,” Cousins explained.
The greatest concern, Cousins said, is the impact of the climate crisis on long term food security, particularly for children, in some of the poorest communities and harshest regions of the country.
Flooding in an area of Tana River county, Kenya.
The county government of Tana River, Kenya.
“That has a huge impact on the ability to attain good education, stay healthy, and in turn further puts pressure on health and education systems,” he said.
“The long term impacts of all these climate crises is the steady eroding of human capital in a lot of these areas, which in turn puts extra stress on government support systems.”
While the policy framework in Kenya is strong, Cousins suggested that it was overmatched at present, and more emphasis would need to be placed on “resilience-building” for the country’s health, education, infrastructure and agricultural systems to deal with what could well become a constant stream of climate shocks.