On April 24, the Financial Times reported that only two months after a massive locust swarm devastated crops in six East African nations, a second, far larger swarm is projected to blight east Africa in the near future.
Traveling locust swarms are reportedly common in Africa, southern Asia, and the Middle East. In 2018 and 2019, however, cyclones in the Indian Ocean that deposited large volumes of rain in the deserts of Oman created “perfect breeding conditions” for desert locusts. Starting in December 2019, hundreds of millions of locusts swept across Kenya, destroying approximately 173,000 acres of cropland.
Subsequently, locust swarms expanded their reach to 10 African countries. By February 2020, the United Nations stated that the swarms, which had expanded to billions of locusts, were “of a magnitude not seen in decades . . . and placing millions at risk of hunger in the Horn of Africa.”
What makes these swarms so devastating is both their numbers and their voracity. According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), an adult desert locust “can consume roughly its own weight in fresh food, that is about two grams every day. A very small part of an average swarm (or about one tonne of locusts) eats the same amount of food in one day as about 10 elephants or 25 camels or 2,500 people.” Each square kilometer of swarm may contain between 40 million and 80 million adult locusts. In addition, swarms destroy not only crops, but also vegetation on cattle-grazing land, expanding the risks to regional food supplies.
Moreover, just this week, the FAO reported that “[s]pring breeding will cause a further increase in locust infestations in East Africa, eastern Yemen and southern Iran in the coming months.” The FAO report expressed particular concern about east Africa, where the current situation
remains extremely alarming as more swarms form and mature in northern and central Kenya, southern Ethiopia. This represents an unprecedented threat to food security and livelihoods because it coincides with the early beginning of the long rains and the current growing season.
By June, the swarms could grow by 500 times and expand their reach beyond the Horn of Africa.
While authorities in the region are working to combat the swarms with measures that include ground and aerial spraying of pesticides, the Financial Times noted that “the Covid-19 pandemic has competed for funding, hampered movement and delayed the import of some inputs, including insecticides.” As a consequence, African Development Bank President Akinwumi Adesina commented that “[i]t appears that those who escape Covid-19 will soon face Locust-19.”
Note: Strategic-risk and food security-risk analysts should take note of this report and track further developments with the swarms between now and June. As the Financial Times put it, this latest infestation, combined with coronavirus-related impediments to combating it, “risks exacerbating an already precarious food situation in the Horn of Africa,” where approximately 40 percent of the 160 million people in the region are undernourished. Because the coronavirus pandemic is far from over in Africa, the risks to food and feed insecurity could be severe for several months to come.