Pandemic adds to string of disasters that render Africa perpetually hungry

Recurrent floods since late 2019, an upsurge in locust invasion, and now the Covid-19 outbreak, all make for disaster for food security in East African countries, experts are warning. The World Food Programme (WFP), for example, says due to Covid-19, the world faces “multiple famines of biblical proportions”. A “hunger pandemic” is what the WFP chief David Beasley called it, one that could kill 300,000 people every day.

Mr Beasly, speaking during an online briefing broadcast by the UN, said there are currently 821 million food-insecure people in the world. In East Africa, abundant seasonal rains have benefited crops and rangelands but they have also fostered a severe desert locust outbreak and flooding. In October 2019, widespread flooding affected nearly 3.4 million people throughout the region according to January 2020 report by the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (Ocha).

This aggravated the effects of the recurrent drought and instability in the region by causing population displacements, livelihood disruption, and increased humanitarian needs. Somalia and Ethiopia were the most affected, while Kenya and Uganda experienced landslides as well as destructive flooding. Desert locust upsurge has remained alarming particularly in Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia, where a new generation of locusts is emerging, posing potentially adverse impacts on the agricultural seasonal yields and local economies affecting food security.

The indirect impacts of Covid-19 through government interventions to control its spread, including social distancing, movement restrictions, and border closures, have driven a slowdown in economic and trade activity that has led to a sharp decline in household income and, in some cases, contributed to spikes in food prices. And Ocha predicts that household food access, especially in urban areas, will most likely decline in the near- and medium-term.

CONCURRENT SHOCKS

“Household food availability from mid- to late 2020 could also be affected if access to seeds and agricultural inputs becomes constrained. Reductions in household income to purchase food and essential non-food commodities, coupled with limited coping options, are driving an increase in the stressed, crisis and emergency food situations for populations across the region,” said this month’s Famine Early Warning Systems Network (Fews Net) report.

The report warns of acutely food insecure population rises due to Covid-19 and concurrent shocks. An analysis by Fews Net points to rising food prices that could restrict household purchasing power. In Kenya tight regional supply is driving high maize and bean prices. The retail maize price in key urban and rural reference markets reached up to 14-33 per cent above the five-year average while wholesale bean prices reached up to 18 to 40 per cent above the five-year average.

Fews Net cross-border monitoring data indicate that maize imports into Kenya during late 2019 accounted for 12 per cent of total regional imports. Based on Fews Net estimates, the national maize balance is expected to be approximately 3.06 million tonnes in June 2020, before the start of the long rains harvest. WREAKING HAVOC Although imports from Tanzania, Uganda, and Ethiopia were expected to fill the gap, it is unclear how this will pan out with the new global Covid-19 crisis.

Floods are already wreaking havoc across Kenya, Uganda and Burundi. Already, in 2019, over 27 million people in six Intergovernmental Authority on Development members — Uganda, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan and Ethiopia, were classified as being in acute food and livelihood crisis or worse — a phase of acute dietary diversity deficit. The six countries faced all three main drivers of acute food insecurity — weather extremities, conflict and economic shocks — with negative impacts reinforcing each other, adding to the complexity of the food security situation.

Now experts are worried about the outcomes of the Covid-19 and renewed flooding in parts of the region to add onto the converging issues. In Rwanda, food prices were already unusually high in early 2020 as a result of increased transport costs and trade disruptions caused by torrential rains as well as reduced imports from Uganda. In Somalia, the number of acutely food-insecure people was projected to increase from 1.2 million in January to March 2020, to 1.3 million from April to June due to substantial crop and pasture losses due to desert locusts, and as the main harvest in July, forecast at 15 to 25 per cent below-average.

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