Locust Swarms In East Africa Threaten Millions With Food Shortages


Ruby Shealy

On Tuesday, South Sudan’s Minister of Agricultural and Forestry Betty Achan announced that swarms of locusts had begun destroying crops and grazing land across the country putting citizens at risk of widespread famine. South Sudan is not alone in battling this unprecedented number of locusts as several countries including Yemen, Djibouti, Eritrea, Kenya, Ethiopia, Somalia, Tanzania, and Uganda have all reported the largest locust swarms in generations, likely caused by unusual weather patterns exacerbated by climate change. As a top UN official told BBC the East Africa region could be on the verge of a food crisis if the locust population is not brought under control soon. However, despite several national attempts to exterminate the insects, the locust population has continued to increase, and international assistance is necessary to prevent a widespread food shortage in the region.

The locust eggs hatched in Yemen three months ago and then migrated to Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia, Djibouti, and Kenya. In recent weeks, the swarms have spread to South Sudan, Uganda, and Tanzania. Reuters reports that these large swarms are likely the result of warming seas creating more rain that awakens dormant eggs as well as the increasingly frequent cyclones that disperse the swarms. According to the United Nations, locusts can travel up to 150 kilometers in a day and eat their body weight in food, meaning that a swarm in a one-kilometer patch of land could eat the same amount as 35,000 people in a day. If left unchecked, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has warned that the number of locusts could increase to 400 times the current population, devastating food supplies in a region where 19 million people already face food insecurity.

To combat these swarms, Kenya has trained hundreds of youth cadets to spray insecticides, Uganda has deployed the military, and Somalia has shot anti-aircraft guns at swarms. However, Kenya temporarily ran out of chemicals and Somalia and Yemen cannot guarantee the safety of exterminators.  Additionally,  Director of the Plant Protection Directorate at the Ministry of Agriculture and Natural Resources Zebdewos Salato told Reuters that the Ethiopian government can only afford to rent four planes for aerial spraying, but it needs at least eight planes to contain the outbreak. The country also needs 500,000 liters of pesticides before the upcoming harvest but has only been able to produce 200,000 liters. In response to these large swarms and pesticide shortages, Somalia has declared a national emergency and the Ethiopian government has called on the international community for “immediate action” in response to the problem.

To contain the locust swarms, the Director-General of the FAO Qu Dongyi, the UN Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Mark Lowcock, and the Executive Director of the World Food Programme David Beasley have called for more funding from the international community. These top UN officials argued that “acting now to avert a food crisis is a more humane, effective, and cost-efficient approach than responding to the aftermath of a disaster.” The effects of a food crisis would be especially devastating considering the region has faced several conflicts and natural disasters in recent years and many people already face food shortages. For instance, Reuters reports that there have been several droughts and floods since 2016 in Kenya, Somalia, and Ethiopia, and a five-year civil war in South Sudan has left over half of the country’s population vulnerable to food shortages. So far, donors have pledged $52 million to the issue, but the FAO has estimated that containing the locusts will cost at least $138 million.

The international community must come together to help the region combat these locust swarms to prevent a widespread food crisis that would affect millions of people and require billions of dollars in food assistance. To prevent these natural disasters from becoming more frequent, it is also necessary to address the root cause of the issue: climate change. If the international community hopes to prevent a humanitarian and environmental crisis, it must cooperate to provide immediate aid to countries dealing with overwhelming locust swarms and take a more proactive approach to prevent these natural disasters by combatting climate change.