East Africa: Locusts Expose People to Famine Leaving Land Naked, Demolishing Crops

Locusts swarms can be hundreds of miles long, leaving little vegetation behind.

Billions of hungry insects are threatening to cause famine amidst the coronavirus pandemic, Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said.

Huge swarms of desert locusts with a greedy appetite for main crops like teff, wheat, and sorghum are sweeping over the Horn of Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia, leaving crops and rangeland destroyed.

Spring-bred swarms are shifting north to the summer breeding areas. In the northwest Kenya, there has been a notable decline in immature swarms. This is due to controlling operations and migration to Ethiopia.

Nevertheless, in Ethiopia, immature swarms are mainly present in the Somali State, and to a lesser degree, in parts of Afar, Amhara and Tigray states.

In Somalia, immature swarms are present on the northern plateau where some of them have started to become matured. Survey and control operations are in progress in the three countries, Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia.

In Sudan, low numbers of solitaries' mature adults are present between Eritrea and North Kordofan while mainly immature adults are present farther north in the Nile Valley.

According to FAO, a combined 42 million people in Eastern Africa and Yemen were already expected to face acute food insecurity this year. The spread of the locusts, and the novel coronavirus pandemic could push more people to border on starvation.

Across the countries like Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia, the effect of the locusts, this year, has already been the worst in decades, with billions of insects that spread over hundreds of thousands hectares of domain land.

Chief Information and Forecasting Officer for the Desert Locust Control Organization for Eastern Africa, Mehari Tesfayohannes said: "I have a lot of experience with locusts, but this is my first time to see such a size of a swarm."

Locust swarms refers to several species of short horned grasshoppers that can radically change how they look and behave under the right circumstances. Out of roughly 7,000 species of grasshoppers, about 20 are considered to be true locusts.

They are found on every continent except Antarctica, though in many places they rarely gather enough numbers to swarm.

The species behind the recent swarms in Africa and Asia is the desert locust, Schistocerca gregaria. It's normally an introvert, leading a solitary life. But now and then after, ideal environmental conditions cause a population outburst.

Locusts form swarms with roughly 150 million individuals per square kilometer, or 600,000 per acre. Those 150 million locusts eat as equal food as 35,000 people eat every day. This year has seen swarms spreading over as much as 2,400 square kilometers, nearly 600,000 acres, according to the report of FAO.

Once airborne, locust swarms can travel more than 100 miles in a day as they ride the wind, devouring almost all vegetation in their path.

As stated by the World Bank, the scale, speed, and destruction of locust swarms together make them international danger to agriculture. "Locusts do not honor political boundaries and can easily invade other adjacent countries."

Governments are fighting back against locusts amid a pandemic and have been a threat to humanity for thousands of years, but anticipating those remains tricky.

"It went well with ground and aerial control operations" for locusts in East Africa, said Mehari, from the Desert Locust Control Organization for Eastern Africa. "Even though, there were some restrictions due to the virus."

However, providing technical support and training is still tricky in the age of social distancing; it is harder to help on the ground or hire people to help control the locusts or gather all the stakeholders in one room.

The disaster caused by locusts is both possibly quick and lasting. A dark cloud descends on a farm, and a swarm can demolish an entire season's crop in an afternoon. But their reproductive cycles and their ability to take their destructive appetites on the road, means that crisis can repeat itself over and over again.

Countries in East Africa, parts of Somalia, Kenya, and Ethiopia are stimulating for the next wave of this crisis now through June, when the new swarms will start to form. If conditions remain favorable, and if control operations falter, another wave could devastate the region from September through December this year.

For now, famine and food insecurity remain the biggest threat and more than 20 million people in the East African region already faced severe food insecurity in 10 countries, according to FAO.

Climate shocks and other natural disasters, conflict, and displacement have created those conditions, though that predates the coronavirus crisis.

The World Food Program said that the pandemic could cause famine worldwide, pushing an additional 130 million people close to starvation, on top of the 135 million already on the border.

Locusts will make this worse in places like East Africa and Yemen, where each bug can eat its weight in a day. If control operations can spare farmers' crops, or the grass that herders depend on, that will prevent the most acute crises.

But if those crops and vegetation can't all be saved, people will exhaust their food supplies, pushing another 2.5 million to the border of hunger in East Africa.

Countries like Yemen already have about 17 million people on the border of famine due to conflict and drought. Locusts are now eating away at its already faltering agriculture system. So far, the FAO noted, it has saved about 720,000 tons of cereal across 10 affected countries, which amounts to food for about 5 million people. And the UN agency is still seeking additional funds, primarily for livelihood support for farmers and herders who have lost their crops or food source. The organization will start launch a new international appeal.

The coronavirus pandemic could also make the humanitarian crisis more fraught. Many who see their crops destroyed or fields torn up might seek work elsewhere, likely in big cities. Quarantine, curfews, and travel restrictions in some of these countries may make that extraordinarily difficult.

The economic pressures of lockdowns, which are affecting countries rich and poor, may also make labor opportunities scarce. Some governments are focusing their limited resources within their own borders to control the spread of the virus.

However, controlling locusts will require countries to work together, and it will take a sustained effort to fight this ancient plague, even among modern conflicts and a global pandemic. "Our gains have been significant," said Qu Dongyu, director general of the FAO, in a statement.

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