SEATTLE, Washington — Even before the novel coronavirus was declared a pandemic, countries in East Africa and Southern Asia announced health emergencies due to the regions experiencing one of the worst locust outbreaks in 70 years. To make matters worse, the regions are still trying to recover from the devastating flooding it experienced in 2019. For some of the world’s most poverty-stricken countries, the compounded effects of deadly flooding, loss of crops due to swarming locusts and the international impacts of the coronavirus will result in increased food insecurity and economic devastation.
Locusts Flock to East Africa
The outbreak began in mid-2019 and the excessive rainfall in the region allowed for the first wave of locusts to lay eggs, resulting in exponentially increasing populations. By December 2019, the outbreak grew to be the worst the region has experienced in 70 years. In the next few months, it is predicted locusts in East Africa will increase its population by 400 times.
However, this is not the first time that countries in East Africa have dealt with locust swarms. For centuries, the region experienced locust “plagues” that can last several years. The last outbreak of this scale lasted 13 years, with locusts destroying crops across Africa and into Pakistan and India. Researchers developed methods for preventing and fighting locust swarms over the decades. However, with increasingly unpredictable weather patterns, predicting when outbreaks will occur has become more and more difficult.
Preventing and Fighting Locusts
Locusts are not difficult to control. They can be easily killed through the application of pesticides, but the problem facing East Africa is the scale of the outbreak itself. In parts of Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia—the countries experiencing the worst outbreaks—the swarms are “so thick [that people]can’t see through them,” according to Ian Vale, the regional director of Save the Children, a humanitarian aid organization focusing on improving the lives of children globally and aiding countries experiencing natural disasters or emergencies.
Keith Cressman, the senior locust forecasting officer at the United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), likens controlling the current locust outbreak to putting out a forest fire. Cressman said “If you find it really small as a campfire, you just put it out. But if you miss it, then it becomes a wildfire, and the problem gets much more difficult and expensive to control.”
Cressman warns that, in June, locusts could reach West Africa and become more serious in the Arabian Peninsula and Southern Asia, including Pakistan and India.
East Africa hosts about 20% of the world’s most food-insecure and with the locust outbreak, the region is facing severe cuts to their already limited food supply. Locusts can consume their weight in vegetation daily and are currently devouring more food per day than the combined populations of Kenya and Somalia. Some Ethiopian farmers reported losing about 90% of their crops during the first wave of locusts in March.
The outbreak of new swarms predicted for late June or early July will coincide with the beginning of harvest season in many of the affected countries, drastically reducing the number of harvestable crops. It is estimated that the food security of more than 13 million people will be impacted by the infestation and that over 25 million people in the region will experience food insecurity in 2020.
The effects of the destruction of crops by locusts do not only impact food security but economic security as well. Locusts in East Africa threaten small farmers and pastoralists’ livelihoods and will undoubtedly push these already impoverished people further into poverty.
Impact of COVID-19
Lockdowns imposed to slow the spread of COVID-19 also slowed the response to the outbreak of locusts in East Africa. Typically, agricultural officers would monitor locusts in the fields, but emergency decrees limiting the movement of people from place to place are making this difficult. These officers must now do their monitoring and reports via email or phone.
While locust monitoring and treatment continues as an essential service, it is difficult for officers to assess the severity of the situation without being in the fields. Additionally, the imports of pesticides from other nations impacted by COVID-19 have been drastically cut, so these countries do not have enough pesticides to effectively control and prevent future swarms.
Locust Relief Efforts
The World Bank allocated $500 million to support the countries most impacted by the locust infestation. The program focuses mainly on helping families meet their immediate needs by providing cash assistance and instituting other social protection measures. The World Bank is also providing nearly $14 million to assist with locust surveillance and control.
To slow the reproduction of the locusts, Kenya deployed planes to spray pesticides over impacted areas, according to the Desert Locust Control Organization for Eastern Africa. Other local organizations suggested eating the locusts, a common practice in some places of the world.
While the situation of locusts in East Africa is dire, several efforts are in place to prevent the situation from becoming worse. The combined impacts of recent flooding, locusts and COVID-19 pose a huge threat to the food security and economic stability of the affected regions. The focus now is preventing the current swarms from reproducing and spreading, mitigating a potential health crisis by limiting movement from place to place. As the world copes with the repercussions of COVID-19, it is important not to forget or ignore the presence of other global health threats and to help out where we can.
– Jessie Cohen
Photo: Wikimedia Commons