Skip to content
Start of page content below the header
News Story
29 June 2020

Fighting hunger, locusts and drought in the shadow of COVID-19 in Ethiopia

Elderly, lactating and pregnant mothers and children under 5 are most vulnerable to malnutrition.

Photo: Melanie Wilson ( Ethiopia Aid UK – a partner organization to APDA).

“Honestly, there is no place to get soap,” Gobalee Hasna speaks with a health worker about  COVID-19 while she is waiting for emergency food assistance from the Afar Pastoralist Development Association (APDA). Gobalee is weak and malnourished, all her 28 goats died because consecutive grueling droughts and the locust invasion depleted the pastures. Like the majority of Afar semi-nomadic pastoralists in the drylands of north-eastern Ethiopia, she depends on livestock for food security.

Gobalee hopes that the rains will come soon so that the herds in her community can recover. Then the people from her clan will help by giving her a milking goat and she will rebuild her small herd again. This is a traditional coping mechanism, but even that is starting to fail now.

To cope with droughts the Afar pastoralists dig holes in riverbeds to get water, for their livestock and for the household needs. Photo: Maria Ölund ( Focali).

The reasons behind acute food insecurity in Afar are many and interlinked. While the world is focused on the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, other humanitarian emergencies don’t go away, even though they aren’t discussed as much by the media. Droughts and the locust invasion have been plaguing Ethiopia and other countries in East Africa before the pandemic and the current movement restrictions are hampering the response to these emergencies.

Locust infestation has hit the already vulnerable and drought-affected communities in Ethiopia hard. FAO estimates that one million people now are in acute need of emergency food. This comes on top of the 8,5 million people who were already severely food insecure in Ethiopia because of adverse climatic conditions and poverty. The second wave of locusts is likely to exacerbate these statistics even further since it will affect the main cropping season.

Huge numbers are difficult to grasp, but behind each figure, there are people like Gobalee, who fight every day to sustain their livelihoods and lives of their families. When the locusts stripped the grazing land of vegetation and COVID-19 restricted movement of goods and services, the Afar people were already in a very vulnerable state.

While the Afar people and other affected communities urgently need support to beat locusts, hunger and the coronavirus, development and policy measures must look beyond the emergency and help these communities restore their land, become resilient and thrive, despite shocks.

Malnutrition – the silent killer

Valerie Browning, a nurse originally from Australia has been living with the Afar community for more than 30 years. In 1989, with her Afar husband, Ismael Ali Gardo, she set up the Afar Pastoral Development Association (APDA). The non-profit formed in cooperation with the local communities to improve the health, education and livelihoods of the Afar community. During the current crisis, APDA works hard to ensure the Afar people have enough food and water to cope. But it’s an uphill battle that doesn’t receive the attention and support it deserves: ”The situation has steeply deteriorated. Malnutrition, the silent killer, has a fierce grip on many remote communities,” Valerie writes in an email to SIANI.

Her reports correspond with the information from the FAO, according to which the Afar region recorded the highest increase in the rate of poor food consumption in Ethiopia, which rose from 58% in August 2019 to 91% in February this year.

Valerie Browning and her husband Ismael Ali Gordo, the Director of APDA, The Afar Pastoralist Development Association. Photo: APDA.

The APDA health team recently returned back from the remote Teeru and Awra communities in Afar and reported a severe lack of food and water for households and their herds. The animals are very thin and in bad health, so humans can’t get enough food either. Infants, elderly and pregnant or lactating women are particularly vulnerable. In fact, according to the APDA’ health screening, 44% of pregnant and lactating mothers are malnourished.

Another particularly alarming figure from the screening is the level of malnourishment among children: 15,2% of children under five years old have moderated malnutrition and 6,4% suffer from severe acute malnutrition (SAM). “This SAM figure is extreme and means children are dying daily from malnutrition,” Valerie explains. People with malnutrition lose immunity and become susceptible to other diseases.

The second wave of the locust plague is now spreading in the Horn of Africa and East Africa damaging pasture, forests and agricultural land. Photo: APDA.

Limited capacity

Smaller towns have government health centers to treat the most severe malnutrition cases. However, these facilities are out of reach for remote rural communities. To survive pastoralists must keep their livestock alive until the rains come. APDA work earnestly to bridge the gap in health services for humans and help with veterinary services

Emergency food assistance distributed by APDA. Photo: Valerie Browning (APDA).

and fodder for their livestock, but with limited capacity: “We are only scratching the surface. What APDA has to offer is nowhere near covering basic needs, such as delivering Ethiopian made famix (emergency food) and water trucking,” Valerie writes.

Valerie notes that the Ethiopian Government receives support through the World Bank’ Productive Safety Net Program (PSNP) to provide food relief, which is distributed for 6 months annually. The program supplies 15 kilograms of wheat and 0.5 liters of cooking oil per person monthly. However, “This year, the food rations were only rolled out in the first week of March. By then, with so little available food grain on the market, prices soared to 1,500 Ethiopian Birr (ETB) for 50 kg, when the normal price is usually 250 ETB per 50 kg.” With depleting herds, the most important asset for the communities, they cannot afford to buy sufficient food to such high prices.

Multidimensional crisis

Several failed rainy seasons in a row weakened the livestock who need fodder and water. As a result, the animals have not produced enough milk and households have gradually lost much of their herds to disease and malnutrition. “This is a typical cycle of events we now see repeatedly since around 2005-06. Each time it gets worse as there are fewer and fewer goats to re-stock the herds, so the Afar society is losing its coping mechanism of helping each other,” explains Valerie.

Now the hot season is in full swing in Afar, with temperatures constantly over 40C degrees. The pastoralists hoped good rains would rejuvenate the pastures, but precipitations have been very poor.

Instead of the long-hoped-for relief, the short rains created favorable conditions for the return of the locust – the eggs from the first wave could mature and the swarms are now steadily increasing and expanding their damage on pastures, crops and forests. Several sub-districts of Sifra and Mille are heavily affected: “APDA is anxiously contacting FAO about the matter and the regional authorities are starting to spray insecticides on the affected areas. This adds to the overall food insecurity since pastoralists will be stressed to move their herds to find pasture,” says Valerie.

Recent spraying of locusts by Bureau of Livestock and Rural Development. Photo: APDA.

As if the drought and locusts were not enough, the pandemic added another layer – Ethiopia has reported over 5000 cases. Nearby Djibouti, an important trade destination for land-locked Ethiopia and bordering to the Afar region, has reported well over 4000 cases. However, the major concern for people’s lives in Afar at the moment isn’t about the virus itself. The imposed movement and trade restrictions hamper the efforts to assist food-insecure farmers and pastoralists as well as the attempts to suppress the locust invasion.

“As we strive to control the desert locust, it is critical to protect the livelihoods of affected populations, especially now that the situation is compounded by the COVID-19 crisis, ” says Fatouma Seid, FAO Representative in Ethiopia. She expects the estimated figure of 8,5 million of severely food insecure people in Ethiopia to rise due to the locust invasion and COVID-19. Ethiopia is however not the only country affected; an estimated 20 million people in East Africa and the Horn were facing acute food insecurity before the pandemic. WFP projects that this figure will double due to COVID-19.

What can be done?

Measures on several levels are needed to address this multidimensional crisis. For the Afar pastoralists, it’s now essential to save lives and livelihoods by meeting the food, water and health needs of the affected households and their herds. At the same time, the efforts to reduce the impacts of the ongoing locust invasion and its further spread, need to be scaled up.

Beyond the immediate emergency measures, the Afar people, like other vulnerable communities, need to build resilience and the ability to recover from shocks. Valerie stresses the importance of inclusive and participatory disaster risk reduction (DRR) system: “This approach can help the communities understand the problem, analyze it and come up with the solution themselves which is good since it protects them from dependency”.

Water containers made of goatskin are used to transport water on donkeys or camels. Photo: Maria Ölund ( Focali).

Community-based veterinary services, access to water and alternative income generation in the form of small-scale manufacturing, trade as well as microfinance are other key measures that could help avoid suffering and losses during droughts and other shocks according to APDAs experience.

Finally, restoration of watersheds and rehabilitation of grazing areas, forests and agricultural lands and essential for long-term sustainability and enhanced community resilience in the Afar region, as well as in many other areas with harsh climate and high land-degradation. Implementation of these measures requires strong partnerships between local, national and international actors to ensure that the most vulnerable aren’t left behind.

Drastic efforts have rightly been taken worldwide to reduce the loss of lives due to the ongoing pandemic, while the locust invasion, food insecurity and droughts in the Horn of Africa took the backseat. But all of these crises are arguably different faces of accelerating climate change and environmental degradation, which, unjustly, does not lead to daily press conferences or rapid global action.

Gobalee and all other people suffering from hunger require the world’s attention now. The persistent hunger crisis underscores that COVID-19 recovery needs to be sustainable, just and resilient and pay close attention to food security.


Written by Maria Ölund based on an interview with Valerie Browning Program Coordinator at APDA. The video interview with Gobalee Hasna about the hunger and locust crisis was recorded by APDA field staff for their partner EthioipaAid UK locust appeal for affected Afar communities. Maria Ölund is the project leader of Focali (Forest, Climate and Livelihood Research Network). She holds a Master’s degree from the School of Global Studies and a B.A in Development and International Cooperation, from University of Gothenburg. During her Master thesis, she conducted field research about pastoralists’ livelihoods and socio-ecological resilience in the Afar region of Ethiopia.