East Africa: Hunger Looms Amid New Locust Invasion, Covid, Drought and Floods

Locusts swarm in the Nugal region of Somalia (file photo).

On Monday, a dark cloud of desert locusts recently floated over the city of Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland. For more than 40 minutes the moving swarm of locusts covered the city in the Galgodon valley. On Tuesday, remnants of the swarm still hovered over the city.

The Intergovernmental Authority on Development (Igad) said last week on Tuesday that it was concerned about the anticipated re-emergence of the stubborn pests in the northernmost parts of Eastern Africa. The region has already undergone multiple cycles of infestation with the persistent insects.

Fresh infestation

The larger East African region has over the past two years been in and out of the throes of economic and humanitarian crises due to the desert locusts, which arrived from Yemen, first entering Ethiopia and Somalia in June 2019, before spreading across borders into Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Sudan, South Sudan and Chad. Tens of thousands of hectares of farmland and pasture have been damaged by the locusts.

Igad is particularly worried that these fresh infestations could conspire with other concurrent shocks such as the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, droughts and floods to worsen food insecurity particularly in conflict-affected areas of Ethiopia and Somalia where millions are already reliant on humanitarian food assistance.

Igad is calling on stakeholders to be vigilant to forestall another round of devastation from the ravenous insects.

FAO's senior locust forecasting officer, Keith Cressman said control teams had been dispatched to take care of the pestilence in the northwest Somalia regions.

"The situation in Northwest Somalia is not surprising. We've been expecting it. And we have the teams in place and they're managing the situation," said Mr Cressman.

There, on the escarpment and plateau, several swarms remain immature.

"They are on the plateau of the north western parts and recently the winds have been very strong and the temperatures very low, which meant they haven't been flying very much. They have been a challenge to find and treat," added Mr Cressman.

In the past few days, the winds have died down and the temperatures have warmed up a little, and with these a few more swarms have been spotted flying around.

Conditions that favour swarm migration in search of areas to lay eggs and moist sandy soils can be found in the Northeast of Ethiopia where the start of breeding is likely to happen.

This combination of suitable breeding conditions and the limited access means breeding could occur in the next two months in the Afar region of Ethiopia, which could bump up the numbers of the highly destructive insects.

However, Mr Cressman said he is more worried about the situation unfolding in Ethiopia where swarms could gain size, strength and speed over the coming two months due to "favourable breeding conditions." He is less worried about the locusts in the areas drying out in northern Somalia.

Good rains have fallen in northeast Ethiopia and parts of southern Djibouti, which have made conditions ideal for breeding.

Good rains

The current above average rainfall projected to continue to September in many northern parts of the Eastern African region has the likelihood of enabling abundant vegetation in those areas with reported swarms, adult locusts, bands and hoppers. Ecological conditions, particularly the availability of green vegetation, could make the areas even more suitable for the proliferation of swarms.

"We're concerned about northeastern Ethiopia. If it rains there during the summer -- in August or September, there can be good locust breeding," said Mr Cressman, adding, "We have to watch the situation in northeast Ethiopia very carefully."

Mr Cressman added that recently there has been very good breeding in Northwest Somalia and Eastern Ethiopia, in May and June. A limited number of swarms that escaped detection and control operations are believed to have moved to northeast Ethiopia (Afar area), and are maturing. Once they lay eggs there will be a generation of breeding there.

"We expected this to happen starting in late July and that is exactly what has happened," he said, adding that it is already suspected that mature swarms are likely present and laying eggs in areas of recent rainfall in the Afar region along Ethiopia's eastern border with Somalia.

"These swarms in Afar are maturing and laying eggs, we believe within quite a large area because the rain has been so good there," said Mr Cressman, adding, "The complicating factor is the insecurity in northern Ethiopia, which has limited the ability to be able to look for locusts in Afar and to carry out the control operations. The teams on the ground and in the air are limited in terms of the places they can work because it's just not safe."

Igad's Climate Prediction & Applications Centre (ICPAC), said it is worried that along with the perennial acute food insecurity in the region, climate shocks and conflict, these countries face extended hunger threat from the locusts.

The regional body said the risk of significant impact to both crops and rangelands is "very high in Ethiopia", and "high in Somalia and Sudan" due to the swarms recorded at the critical time of planting of main season cereals crops. It added that besides the north-western regions of Somalia by end of July, adult locusts had been reported in River Nile-Sudan showing breeding and reproduction activities with a risk of increasing swarm numbers.

Breeding

In Sudan, desert locust survey operations had been launched to cover the targeted areas of Khartoum, River Nile, Northern, North, South and West Kordofan, Kassala, Blue Nile and summer breeding belt of the Red Sea State. The surveys are expected to extend to reach Gezira, Gedaref, White Nile, in addition to North and West Darfur States at the beginning of August.

Although the locust numbers in Sudan and Eritrea, which are summer breeding areas, are very low and are scattered with no sizable populations, ICPAC apprised the situation in Sudan as being "at the caution level, particularly in the River Nile State". Here, apparently, limited control operations were conducted against congregant breeding and mature and immature groups, hopper bands and groups in some locations at the River Nile Valley near Karima and east of Shendi.

The desert locust swarms had also been reported in five zones of Ethiopia: Argoba, Debub wollo, Wag Himra, Siti, Oromia and four regions in Somalia: Awadal, Togdheer, Woqooyi Galbeed, Sool and two regions of Djibouti: Ali Sabieh, Dikhil.

In Ethiopia, it highlighted Afar zones 1 to 5, North Shewa, Oromia, Semen Gondar, Wag Hirma, Mirab, Hararghe, Misraq Harerge, Misraq Shewa, Siti, Debubawi, Mehakelegnaw, Mi'irabawi, Semien Mi'irabawi, as being at high risk of reinvasion.

It also apprises high-risk areas in Somalia as being Awdal, Woqooyi Galbeed, Toghdheer, Sanaag, Bari, Mudug, Galguduud, Hiiraan, Bakool and Gedo. And in n Djibouti: Ali Sabieh, Dikhil, Obock, Tadjourah, and in Sudan in Al Qadarif and Sennar. Eritrea's Anseba, Debub, Maekel regions are estimated to be at high risk too.

In West Africa, scattered adults in Niger and Chad are thought to be in summer breeding.

"Ethiopia's crops for the Meher season (the main growing season from May to September) are at risk due to this possibility of desert locust increase due to high rainfall received in July and forecasted in August through to September," warned ICPAC.

Heavy to very heavy rainfall is expected over parts of southern and central parts of Sudan, north-western Ethiopia and northern regions of Ethiopia including Tigray and Amhara, and Eritrea.

"It is now critical for ground and aerial teams to find and treat any remaining mature swarms before they lay eggs to limit breeding," said ICPAC in a press brief last week on Tuesday. "But it will also be necessary to prepare for eventual control operations against hopper bands that will form once hatching takes place later this month, especially in those areas where breeding could not be detected."

Swarm migration

It is forecast that the wind direction in Northern Ethiopia and Eritrea could later favour north locust swarm movement to Eritrea, Djibouti and across the Red Sea to Yemen and Saudi Arabia.

Mr Cressman said swarms are unlikely to migrate to Yemen and Saudi Arabia at this time of year, where an immature swarm was moving about in the southern highlands, but low numbers of adults are present in the interior where good rains fell earlier. He said aerial surveys are increasing in the interior where only low numbers of locusts have been detected, and there was no anticipated breeding in the country.

"We don't see Yemen being as big a menace as it has been in the past two years, so we don't expect that it will threaten the horn of Africa later on," said Mr Cressman.

According to Mr Cressman, the region is better equipped now than it was two years ago when the insects first arrived to Eastern Africa. "We've enough resources in terms of aircraft, pesticides, the control teams are more knowledgeable and logistic-wise too."

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