The locust swarms descending on East Africa are expected to get even worse, threatening the region with the worst outbreak in 70 years. Desert locusts can eat enough food for 35,000 people in a single day. In a region already plagued by food insecurity, millions more may go hungry.
An unprecedented amount of rain at the end of last year created a perfect breeding ground for the pests. Such extreme weather events have been happening more frequently due to climate change. Locusts bred in December are now maturing and have already made their way through newly planted spring crops. As farmers desperately try to restart their growing season, locusts continue to swarm and breed. At the end of each three month life cycle, a locust can have 20 offspring. By June, the population could have multiplied by a factor of 400.
For now, East African nations are facing the biggest burden. A recent swarm in Kenya was 60 by 40 kilometers, according to Al-Jazeera. Ethiopia, Uganda, Somalia, South Sudan, Djibouti, Eritrea, Tanzania, and Congo are also affected. Desert locusts were also spotted far beyond the Horn of Africa. Left unchecked, the locust crisis could span from Senegal to India.
Most of the support for distressed nations comes from the FAO, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Cyril Ferrand, the Resilience Team Leader for Eastern Africa, gave a detailed interview to Al-Jazeera. The FAO has set a fundraising goal of $153 million, of which $111 million has been procured. The money is needed to support the extremely complex process of defending people, crops, and livestock. The main defense strategy is spraying locusts with pesticides, but the chemicals must make direct contact to be effective. To do this, there needs to be aerial surveillance and trained pilots to see where eggs and swarms are. Spraying also cannot happen near population centers or livestock, as it poses a health risk. If there is too much heat or wind, the pesticides are also ineffective.
Ferrand also claims the situation is worsened by the coronavirus lockdowns. Pesticides are sourced from Japan and supply chain disruptions are causing order delays. Those in charge of pesticide distribution must wear personal protective equipment, which has been prioritized for use in healthcare centers. Citizens are also unable to leave their homes to join the community in warding off the locusts. These governments need international support to obtain necessary supplies and personnel.
The FAO appears to be on top of the situation, as they have been actively monitoring it since January. They know exactly what they need and what their strategy must be moving forward. The problem is, they need more support. Ferrand says local governments have not faced a crisis of this nature for decades. They are unprepared and unsure of what to do. The FAO is funded by UN member states, the United States being by far the largest contributor. The next two are the United Kingdom and the members of the European Union. These countries are focusing inward as coronavirus cases continue to climb. They still have a responsibility to assist developing nations in times of crisis. If the funding goal is not reached and the locusts are not successfully slowed, African countries will require even more money in humanitarian assistance as people go hungry.
20 million people in the region are food insecure. They lie somewhere on the scale below from the FAO. Locust swarms threaten to push those on the scale further to the right. Ferrand’s best case scenario is half a million additional people added to the spectrum. If the funding goal is reached, weather conditions cooperate, and supplies reach their destination, 500,000 people will still struggle. If conditions continue to worsen and the organization is not properly supported, 4 million more people will be food insecure.
In a separate interview with EARTHER, Ferrand says “How do we respond to the needs of the European countries and North American countries as well as the humanitarian and development assistance that is still so necessary in the continent of Africa?… This is the challenge that we will have to face in 2020.” The impact of the pandemic in Europe and North America has created a burden on resources and focus. Yet, the developed world must also be able to acknowledge and try to halt crises in the developing world.
Governments should be doing everything they can to flatten the curve and protect the well-being of their citizens. But they also have existing commitments to international organizations and struggling nations. East African nations are fighting the same war against coronavirus, but their difficulties are compounded as plagues of locusts descend on crops and livestock. They need help urgently, and they deserve to get it.