A wave of locust swarms is descending upon east Africa for the second time this year, according to a report update released by the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) last week. The swarms threaten to devastate the food security and livelihoods of over 25 million people in the region. In just one day, this mobile disease can travel 90 miles and eat its own body weight in food crops. With stark warnings that the locust wave could be 20 times worse than the one that preceded it two months ago, east African countries are deeply concerned about their ability to cope.
The FAO warns that the locust infestation “represents an unprecedented threat…because it coincides with the beginning of the long rains and the planting season.” These conducive breeding conditions could see the locusts multiply by 400 times over the coming months. Officials from affected countries – such as Ethiopia, Somalia, Kenya and Uganda – have expressed mounting concern. “Our people will end with starvation,” says Christine Apolot, chairperson for Uganda’s Kumi district, as she warns of the implications for Ugandans if international partners do not act. Somalia’s Minister for Agriculture, meanwhile, said the locusts pose “a major threat to Somalia’s fragile food security situation.”
This wave of locust infestations comes at a terrible time for east Africa. The economic impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic are already exacerbating the locust swarms’ impact in the area, as nations struggle to import chemicals to control the infestation. Yet the seeds for this devastating threat to food supplies were sown by long-term factors: conflict and climate change. In May 2018, the unseasonably severe cyclone Mekunu provided fertile breeding conditions for desert locusts in the usually arid Rub’ al Khali desert. These locusts invaded Yemen, whose once-effective locust control programme has been incapacitated due to the country’s civil war, which has been ongoing since 2015. “In current times we’re just able to cover the Red Sea coastal areas…and some areas in the interior,” says Adel al-Shaibani, head of Yemen’s locust control programme. The locust swarms thus passed easily through Yemen into east Africa in 2018, where successive generations of the insect have been multiplying.
Preventing mass starvation and loss of livelihoods threatened by this infestation is tied to countries’ abilities to resolve internal conflicts. The UN has warned the only effective measure to control locust swarms is to drop pesticides on affected regions by air. However, in Somalia, authorities are unable to perform these vital flyovers due to no-fly zones caused by conflict with the terrorist group al-Shabaab. Even if Kenya, Ethiopia and Uganda are successful in their control operations, Locust Watch warns that spring rains have made locust eggs resilient, and any locust swarms left undealt with in Somalia could cause a regional resurgence.
Failure to control this outbreak of locust swarms has catastrophic implications. Up to 65% of east Africans who work in agriculture could lose their job security. Mass levels of internal displacement could occur as people migrate in search of work and food security. This would nullify measures to restrict movement in east Africa aimed at preventing Covid-19 from gaining a foothold in the region, potentially causing a mass epidemic. To avoid this devastating chain of events, countries must cooperate multilaterally with nations such as Somalia and Yemen to help them strike peace agreements or ceasefires, to allow control measures to be carried out against the locust swarms. The Covid-19 pandemic provides a small window of opportunity in which to do this, as it has encouraged ceasefire negotiations between nations. Countries and international agencies must use this chance to act, or millions of people will suffer the consequences.