The Locust Crisis In East Africa

As Uganda and Tanzania hurry to respond to the largest locust outbreak in parts of East Africa in decades, the United Nations (UN) has warned that immediate action is needed in this vulnerable region, before more rainfall weeks from now allows for vegetation growth that would feed generations of locusts. The UN says that leaving the locust population unchecked could lead to locust growth of up 500 times before the arrival of drier weather in June.

The UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) has asked for $76 million USD in immediate aid. The U.S. has released $800,000 and the European Union released 1 million euros. The UN has $20 million on hand right now.

A locust swarm has the potential to cause significant damage to pastures such that within hours, they can strip it of most of its vegetation. The UN has said that the infestation in Kenya is the worst in 70 years, while the worst infestation in 25 years is occurring in Somalia and Ethiopia. In already vulnerable regions, food security and crop production are threatened which puts millions of lives at risk.

On February 10th, UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock briefing in New York said, “there is the risk of a catastrophe.” Regarding the current response, he said, “the response today is not gonna work, unless there’s a big scale-up.” He added “in this region where there is so much suffering and so much vulnerability and fragility, we simply cannot afford another major shock. And that’s why we need to act quickly.”

Stephen Byantwale, commissioner for crop protection in Uganda’s ministry of agriculture, said “We are using motorised sprayers, a drone and manual sprayers.” “They [locusts] are spreading like wildfire, so they are a real, major threat.”

Climate experts have indicated that a powerful cyclone off the coast of Somalia contributed to heavy rains, which subsequently played a major role in this locust crisis. Excess rain in Oman created excellent breeding conditions for locusts. From the Arabian Peninsula, the locust infestation has also impacted India and Pakistan. Even a small swarm can consume enough food to feed 35,000 people daily. A typical locust swarm can also travel an upwards of 150 km a day. The locust that is behind this crisis is the desert locust. Since the 1900’s and onward, there have been six major desert locust plagues, including the last one in 1987-1989.

A significant challenge in addressing the locust crisis are political factors. Many of the locust breeding locations are in the semi-autonomous Puntland region in Somalia. A lot of this territory is held or threatened by Islamic extremist group al-Shabaab, making it nearly impossible to aerially spray the region to kill the locusts.

Food insecurity in the affected east African region has continued to be widespread, with factors like droughts and floods leaving 20 million vulnerable. This swarm has affected Somalia, Ethiopia, Yemen, and Kenya, and has since crossed the border into Uganda recently. South Sudan, which is emerging from a lengthy civil war, is very vulnerable to a locust invasion as about half the country faces hunger.

Senior locust forecasting officer at the UN FAO, Keith Cressman, said “we know that cyclones are the originators of swarms – and in the past 10 years there’s been an increase in the frequency of cyclones in the Indian Ocean.” He added “normally there’s none, or maybe one. So this is very unusual. It’s difficult to attribute to climate change directly, but if this trend of increased frequency of cyclones in the Indian Ocean continues, then certainly that’s going to translate to an increase in locust swarms in the Horn of Africa.”

It is apparent that in such a vulnerable region, a rapid and comprehensive response is essential to containing the locust outbreak and preventing its propagation to other countries. As it has been stated earlier, political realities such as extremist groups in affected regions of Somalia are a major complicating factor, which makes it very difficult to address parts of the crisis. The current amount of international aid funding that the UN has is well short of the estimated demands of the crisis. Given the implications on food security in places that already have many food insecure people, an urgent international response may minimize some future problems. While a direct link to this crisis and climate change has been difficult to establish, more research into the factors that have contributed to such a rate of locust growth is an important part of developing long-term solutions.