First floods, then desert locusts

Farmers in central Somalia cope with back-to-back threats

Ali’s village in central Somalia often faces flooding, but this time, two cyclones also brought a rapid multiplication of locusts, yet another major threat to the food security and livelihoods of farmers in this area. ©FAO/Arete/Ismail Taxta


In December 2019, Cyclone Pawan hit Ali Mahamud Rubaax’s village of Dharkeynley in Beletweyne, central Somalia. The storm’s rain caused the river levels to reach their maximum, breaking their banks and overflowing into the village and surrounding areas leaving most of the town under water. About 182 000 people from this district were displaced. Some drowned. Others had gone missing. 

This wasn’t the first time Ali dealt with flooding. As a lifelong farmer, he had often seen the river overflow and destroy his crops.

“When the flooding ended last year, we started planting seeds, but then the water came back again,” Ali explains. It is part of the lot of farmers in this low-lying but economically important hub of Beletweyne, which provides services to surrounding rural communities. 

But Pawan was so intense that, in just a few days, parts of Somalia received as much rain as they normally would over an entire year.  The scale of flooding it caused was worse than the typical inundations endured by farmers like Ali. And this time, with the rain, came the locusts. 

Rain and winds are two crucial elements that cause desert locusts to multiply and spread rapidly. Cyclone Pawan made the weather conditions that much more conducive to their multiplication, sparking the largest desert locust infestation to affect Somalia in generations. 

Considered the most destructive migratory pest in the world, the desert locust is highly mobile and can travel with the wind up to 150 km/day.

“First the water damaged my farm, then the desert locusts came and ate everything,” Ali describes. “Because of the locusts, we lost everything on our farm. It became a failed season.”

Most Somalis depend on rain-fed agriculture for their livelihoods, but a desert locust invasion can mean that some farmers lose 100 percent of their crops. ©FAO/AreteIsmail Taxta

The vast majority of the Somali population depends on agriculture for their livelihoods. These farming and herding communities rely heavily on rain-fed production systems, with the timing, duration and quantity of rainfall playing a critical role in rangeland rejuvenation and crop production.

“My life depends on farming,” stated Ali. “My family eats what we farm.” 

But with threats like the desert locust, farmers can lose up to 100 percent of their crops and their fodder, devastating their food security, livelihoods and the economy.

“The first time the desert locusts came to us, we were scared because they were flying around all over. We tried different things to scare them away,” said Iraado Amir Omar, a female farmer also living in Dharkeynley village. “We created fires, made some noise, but still, they ate our plants and crops leaving almost nothing behind on our farms. My farm is only one hectare, but more than half of it was destroyed, even the surrounding trees and plants are gone now.” 

The livelihoods of farmers and pastoralists in Somalia have already been stretched to the limit due to extended and often extreme droughts, episodes of flooding, as well as conflict and insecurity. They can’t afford another threat to their food security, let alone one with as destructive as the desert locust.

FAO is providing farmers with tools, seeds and other materials to help them bounce back from these shocks, while also supporting governments in mounting large-scale locust control operations. ©FAO/Arete/Ismail Taxta

Gearing up for the long haul 

In November 2020, nearly a year after Pawan abetted the first locust invasion, another such storm — the strongest to hit Somalia in recorded history, Cyclone Gati — dumped around two years-worth of rain on the country over the span of just a few days. Even after the unprecedentedly large locust control efforts of the preceding months, these rains provoked yet another round of breeding of the voracious insect in Somalia, as well as in nearby Ethiopia.

“With the recent invasion of a new generation of desert locusts, large areas of cropland and pasture are at risk of being damaged,” says Ezana Kassa, FAO Emergency Coordinator in Somalia. “The impact can have severe consequences for agricultural, agropastoral and pastoral livelihoods in a context where food security is already fragile.” 

Ali and about 2 500 other households in Beletweyne district received cash support from FAO to help them survive the desert locust invasion. Farming families also got seeds and tools to sustain their farming in the long-term. 

“The seeds arrived when we needed them the most. I do not have money to buy seeds, but at least I can plant them now,” says Iraado.

“The help that FAO gave us is very important because our lives depend on the land,” Ali says. “I hope in the future that these seeds that I am planting will change my life and the lives of my family members.” 

In addition to helping farmers like Ali, FAO, with the generous support of its donors, is supporting governments in scaling up their locust containment operations to meet the renewed threat. 

In Somalia, the locust response is taking place alongside ongoing FAO efforts to help farmers diversify their crops and become more resilient to shocks like flooding or drought. This includes restoring river embankments to contain flooding and providing veterinary care to keep the livestock that millions of Somali pastoralists depend on healthy and strong. 

For updated information about the current desert locust situation, visit FAO’s Locust Watch website.

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