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Battling locust swarms in East Africa

Battling locust swarms in East Africa FAO – Sven Torfen
07 Jul
Control and relief action in Eastern Africa and the Greater Horn of Africa steps up to face the double threat of desert locusts and the Covid-19 pandemic

While the throng of road and air traffic has been muted by the pandemic, the drum of locust wings continues to beat in East Africa and the Greater Horn of Africa. The upsurge in swarms is the worst in decades, with the World Bank estimating that potential damages to food security and livelihoods could reach US$8.5 billion in 2020. 

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Early signs of the upsurge rippled in 2018; in December, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) issued the first warnings of an outbreak along the Red Sea coast in Eritrea and Sudan. July 2019 saw further warnings that locust summer breeding posed serious threats to agricultural production in Yemen, Eritrea, Sudan, Ethiopia and northern Somalia, and that swarms could invade Kenya by the end of 2019. The situation deteriorated in January 2020, after flooding caused by Cyclone Pawan created favourable breeding conditions. So far two waves of swarms have hit the region threatening the food supply of 23 million people. A swarm of just more than a third of a square mile can eat the same amount of food in one day as 35,000 people.

‘Desert locusts transition between life cycle phases,’ explains Cyril Piou, locust specialist at the Centre for Biology and Management of Populations, Montpellier. ‘During dry phases, reduced vegetation brings groups of locusts together. When heavy rains come, locusts group and reproduce rapidly through generations, shifting from a solitary lifestyle to the “gregarious” phase, which is when mass locust migrations occur.’ 

The FAO launched a funding appeal in January 2020, requesting $153 million dollars to fund rapid swarm response and anticipatory action in ten countries: Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda and Yemen. To date the appeal has netted $130 million (85 per cent of its target), of which 63 per cent had already been spent on control and surveillance operations by the end of April. Funding is also coming from other sources. On 21 May, the World Bank Group approved a $500 million programme to assist poor and vulnerable farmers, herders and rural households.

FAO Isak AminA worker tackles a swarm [Image: FAO – Isak Amin]

This action has had an impact. In May, the FAO reported that between January and April 2020, 720,000 tonnes of cereal had been saved across 365,000 hectares in the region as a result of controlled pesticide use and surveillance operations – enough to feed five million people for one year. An additional 350,000 pastoral households have reportedly been spared the loss of their livelihoods.

While the news offers a positive lining, some researchers think it’s too little, too late. ‘What we’re seeing now is the result of locust multiplication that wasn’t adequately controlled when the locusts were multiplying. Although the FAO are doing what they can, our research suggests that preventative management of locusts, before the gregarious stage, would require only one per cent of what’s currently being spent,’ says Piou. 

In a press release, World Bank Group President David Malpass highlighted the double-threat currently facing the region: ‘Locust swarms present a double crisis for countries that are also battling the Covid-19 pandemic.’ Lockdowns and travel restrictions have prevented the delivery of locust control equipment, and restricted access for response teams to those that need advice and expertise. 

Locusts chart updated World BankData from World Bank

In many agricultural communities however it is the locusts, not the pandemic, that worries people most. Ugandan farmer Yoweri Aboket told ABC News: ‘It’s the locusts that everyone is talking about. Some people will even tell you that the locusts are more destructive than the coronavirus. There are even some who don’t believe that the virus will reach here.’ 

Most organisations accept that there will be more swarms. Another locust wave will transition to the young adult phase in late June and early July, coinciding with the harvest. The FAO estimate that favourable breeding conditions could allow for a 400‑fold increase in the locust population by June. ‘Our gains have been significant; but the battle is long and is not yet over,’ said FAO agency chief Qu Dongyu in a press release.

‘It’s fantastic that there’s a huge amount of financial support, but it’s not going to stop the crisis in the next few months. The desert locust upsurge will be raging for another year at least,’ says Piou.

This was publushed in the July 2020 issue of Geographical

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