While many countries are focused to protect their people from the rapid spread of coronavirus, Africa is battling a devastating natural disaster: a plague of locusts. The infestations of desert locusts, considered the world’s most dangerous migratory pest, have been feared throughout history because they devastate crops and cause major agricultural damage. While locusts can be pretty harmless when alone, they can congregate into thick, mobile, ravenous swarms when they are all together.
The desert locust is usually found in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East but also visible in some 60 countries. A desert locust swarm is a threat for many people as it can be 460 square miles in size and pack between 40 and 80 million locusts into less than half a square mile. Since each locust can eat its weight in plants every day, a swarm of such size would eat 423 million pounds of plants daily. Thus, governments that have been affected by the invasions before have perceived the risk of locust invasion as a serious threat to food security at the national level.
As said, locust swarms can typically cover vast distances. This has been proven with past locusts infestations. In 1954, a swarm flew from northwest Africa to Great Britain, while another swarm in 1988 made the lengthy trek from West Africa to the Caribbean. Eyewitness accounts of locust invasions emphasize the suddenness of onslaught and the devastation locusts leave behind them.
Worst Desert Locust Infestation in 70 Years
Early this year, East African nations were attacked by desert locusts which were considered the worst locust outbreak the region had seen in 70 years. The communities living in those countries haven’t fully recovered but a second, much bigger round of the voracious insects is arriving, particularly in Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia where it poses an unprecedented threat to food security and livelihoods for millions.
Statista, a German online portal for statistics, reported that every one km2 locust swarm is comprised of approximately 40 million locusts, with larger swarms reaching hundreds of millions. Recent reports showed that swarms covering an area as large as 2,400 km2 are moving across East Africa at speeds up to 150 kilometers a day. The United Nations said that 19 million people in the region are severely food insecure due to the invasion, which could also cause even more malnutrition and food scarcity.
Current situations might worsen because the new generation of locust swarms are expected to begin laying eggs within the week. With the locust swarms gaining size and strength, experts are afraid that up to 100% of farmers' budding crops could be consumed, leaving some communities with nothing to harvest. “The current situation in East Africa remains extremely alarming as ... an increasing number of new swarms are forming in Kenya, southern Ethiopia, and Somalia,” a new assessment from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the US said.
Estimates from the FAO revealed that locust numbers could grow another 20 times during the upcoming rainy season unless control activities are stepped up. According to NBC News, an online site that covers breaking news, videos, and the latest top stories in world news, business, politics, health and pop culture, Kenneth Mwangi, a satellite information analyst at the center, said that the new swarms include “young adults,” voracious bugs “that eat more than the adult ones.” The Nairobi-based Climate Prediction and Application Center warned that locusts are “invading the Eastern Africa region in exceptionally large swarms like never seen before.”
Unfortunately, measures to help people from the locust swarms will be increasingly hampered by pandemic-related travel restrictions and supplies problems. According to Common Dreams, a non-profit independent newscenter, the main method to fight these swarms is spraying them with pesticides. "Suppliers of motorized sprayers and pesticides are facing major challenges with limited airfreight options to facilitate delivery. Purchased orders were placed [a] a few weeks ago and pesticides expected last week in Kenya have been delayed by 10 days,” Cyril Ferrand, FAO's resilience team leader for East Africa, said.
However, Ferrand clarified that there’s no significant slowdown in repelling locusts as they consider this “a national priority.” "While lockdown is becoming a reality, people engaged in the fight against the upsurge are still allowed to conduct surveillance, and air and ground control operations. The biggest challenge we are facing at the moment is the supply of pesticides and we have delays because global air freight has been reduced significantly,” he said.
A recent report by the Food Security and Nutrition Working Group (FSNWG) revealed that the region faces widespread food insecurity, with approximately 12.7 million people in Crisis (IPC Phase 3). This means that there’s a highly stressed and critical lack of food access with high and above usual malnutrition and accelerated depletion of livelihood assets. Currently, 8.5 million people in Ethiopia, 3.1 million in Kenya, and 1.1 million people in Somalia are facing food insecurity. Drivers of this food insecurity include climate shocks, conflict, and macroeconomic crises.
Climate Change and Locusts Swarm
The massive swarms are fueled by the climate crisis. According to the UN Environment, the global champion for the environment with programmes focusing on sustainable development, climate, biodiversity and more, studies have linked the increased global temperature to more damaging locust swarms, leaving Africa disproportionately affected. In normal conditions, desert locusts are usually restricted to the semi-arid and arid deserts of Africa, the Near East, and South-West Asia that receive less than 200 mm of rain annually.
At the same time, their numbers could have decreased either by natural mortality or through migration. Also, the above-average rain caused by the climate crisis is helping locusts to thrive more. This was proven during the Cyclone Mekunu in 2018. The natural disaster allowed several generations of desert locusts in the moist sand and vegetation to thrive in the desert between Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Oman known as the Empty Quarter, breeding and forming into crop-devouring swarms.
“That allowed the conditions to continue to be favorable and another generation of breeding, so instead of increasing 400-fold, they increased 8,000-fold.,” Keith Cressman, locust forecasting expert for the FAO, said.
FAO has predicted that the locust swarms will stay until April, or worse, we could see the existing number of locusts grow by 400 times by June. Fortunately, the organization has secured about $111.1 million of the $153.2 million it has requested to tackle the locust crisis and is supporting surveillance and pesticide application in 10 nations.