Zimbabwe: Understanding the Locust Problem

A swarm of locusts spotted at Riandira village in Kirinyaga County in Kenya on January 13, 2020.
10 February 2020
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Zimbabwean farmers were genuinely worried when swarms of desert locusts teared through large parts of East Africa a few weeks ago.

With whispers of a severe drought, the second in as many years, buzzing throughout the country, the insects are the last thing farmers wanted to hear - they eat huge amounts of vegetation, posing a serious threat to Zimbabwe's already weakened food security situation.

Zimbabwean authorities have since issued a statement seeking to calm nerves, saying the situation was under control.

Government said it was monitoring the movement of the red locusts in line with guidelines from the International Red Locust Control Organisation for Central and Southern Africa (IRLCO-CSA), where Zimbabwe is a member.

But is the danger truly averted, or, at the least, the risks check-mated?

The science points towards a multiplication of such devastating pests throughout much of Africa due to climate change.

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the swarms are the largest in Somalia and Ethiopia in 25 years. In Kenya, the locust attack is the worst in 70 years, it says.

FAO warned that by June, the locusts, which spread into east Africa from Yemen across the Red Sea following heavy rainfall late last year, could grow 500 times.

It said: "the current situation may be further worsened by new breeding that will produce more locust infestations in Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia and possibly further afield."

"Further afield" could mean a lot of things. It could possibly have Zimbabwe within its tentacles.

Locusts can travel the equivalent of 150km per day, say experts, and "each adult insect can eat its own weight in food daily."

The threat of a locusts invasion is particularly a concerning one for local farmers, who are currently battling the fall armyworm and a severe shortage of rain.

That threat remains real going into the future, however. Climate change is blamed for such blurred forecasts.

In light of the cross-border threats from crop damaging pests and diseases and their relationship to and with climate change and the environment in which they exist, the UN Environment Programme expert on climate and Africa Richard Munang speaks on the issues.

In an interview published on the UNEP website last week, Munang elaborates on the locust emergency at a time of changing climates. We publish an excerpt of the interview below:

Q: What is the relationship between locusts and climate change?

A: During quiet periods -- known as recessions -- 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. In normal conditions, locust numbers decrease either by natural mortality or through migration.

However, the last five years have been hotter than any other since the industrial revolution and since 2009 . Studies have linked a hotter climate to more damaging locust swarms, leaving Africa disproportionately affected -- 20 of the fastest warming countries globally are in Africa. Wet weather also favours multiplication of locusts.

Widespread, above average rain that pounded the Horn of Africa from October to December 2019 were up to 400 per cent above normal rainfall amount.

These abnormal rains were caused by the Indian Ocean dipole, a phenomenon accentuated by climate change.

Q: How can countries and individuals be better prepared?

A: While climate change is a global phenomenon, Africa stands out for its vulnerability, which is driven primarily by the prevailing low levels of socioeconomic development. Persons living in poverty face compounding vulnerabilities to climate change impacts because they lack the resources to quickly recover from its effects. In this case, desert locusts are ravaging crops in the field before harvesting, wiping out livestock and wildlife feed, and with them savings, assets and livelihoods.

Deployment of climate action solutions such as decentralising solar dryers to agro-value chain actors can ensure that they can earn up to 30 times more by being able to preserve their harvest and sell during the offseason or gives them flexibility to compensate for unpredictable events such as these locust swarms. It can also create enterprise opportunities for auxiliary value chains of fabricating these solar dryers. Interventions like this are critical to increase climate resilience for some of the most vulnerable communities across the continent.

Q: How can locusts be controlled?

A: Controlling desert locust swarms primarily uses organophosphate chemicals by vehicle-mounted and aerial sprayers, and to a lesser extent by knapsack and hand-held sprayers. Extensive research is ongoing regarding biological control and other means of non-chemical control with the current focus on pathogens and insect growth regulators.

Control by natural predators and parasites so far is limited since locusts can quickly move away from most natural enemies. While people and birds often eat locusts, this is not enough to significantly reduce population levels over large areas.

Q: What is the role of the United Nations in locust control?

A: The United Nations' response to locust attack control is multi-agency in nature. While the immediate sector at risk is food security, climate change plays an exacerbating role. One of UNEP's roles is to disseminate the latest science on emerging climate trends to inform cross-sectorial policies and ensure resilience is built in the relevant sectors.

The role of the World Meteorological Organization is to forecast the more immediate weather changes that may exacerbate the locusts' attacks.

God is faithful.

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