For the second time this year, East African nations are bracing for the onslaught of locust swarms. The first swarms left the region devastated. The scientific journal, Nature, reported that the first swarms (spotted in at least eight countries) have placed an estimated 20 million people in the region at risk of extreme food insecurity. While the region struggles to recover, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has a bleak outlook for the future. They estimate the second wave of locusts could be up to 20 times larger than the first. FAO also believes it poses “an extremely alarming and unprecedented threat” to the livelihoods of people in the region.
Ethiopia, Somalia, Kenya, Djibouti, Eritrea, Tanzania, Sudan, South Sudan and Uganda have already been on the frontline of the first wave of swarms. They will likely struggle to weather the next. Al Jazeera reported that approximately one million people in Ethiopia require emergency food aid after swarms damaged 200,000 hectares of agricultural land. According to the UN, a locust swarm “of just more than a third of a square mile can eat the same amount of food in a single day as 35,000 people.” Last month UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres claimed parts of the last swarm(s) were comparable to the size of major cities such as Moscow. With this in mind, it is easy to grasp the scale of the devastation facing East African countries.
While locust swarms are not uncommon in the region, this season has produced abnormally large numbers of the insects. Al Jazeera reports that this is, in part, because of a particularly wet rainy season in the region. This has provided perfect conditions for locusts to breed at rapid rates. The region has faced an abnormal number of cyclones this year. This has lead experts to highlight the links between climate change and complex food security issues like the locust swarms.
Mr. Guterres stated earlier this month “there is a link between climate change and the unprecedented locust crisis plaguing Ethiopia and East Africa.” He stressed that this was a trend likely to continue and added “warmer seas mean more cyclones generating the perfect breeding ground for locusts.” It can be seen that the region has experienced a drastically different weather pattern than usual. The Famine Early Warning System (FEWS) reported the “the October to December 2019 rainfall season ranked among the wettest rainfall seasons in East Africa in at least 40 years.” FEWS added that the cumulative rainfall ranged from 200 to 400 percent of average. The FAO claimed that because of these ideal breeding conditions “the number of locusts in East Africa could expand by as much as 500 times by June.” This poses a huge risk to an already heavily food insecure region.
The region is also facing the added pressure of the global coronavirus pandemic. This is complicating the delivery of aid to nations which have been hit hard by the swarms. The FAO’s Ethiopian representative Fatouma Seid said the region desperately needed help in the form of agricultural inputs and cash transfers to get them through the crisis. The Guardian reported that “Kenyan officials have said coronavirus crackdowns have slowed efforts to fight the infestation, as crossing borders has become harder and pesticide deliveries are held up.”
East African nations face an increasingly complex situation as they work to tackle an unprecedented food crisis and a pandemic at the same time. Only time will tell how well the region will weather the storm. However, one thing remains clear. There is a global responsibility to tackle regional issues like this before they become global issues too big to contain.