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10/02/2020 – Challenges Of Our Times / Desert Locust / Ethiopia / Kenya / Somalia / East Africa

A new ‘Day of the Locust’: East African agriculture faces a devastating threat


Ethiopian, Kenyan and Somalian farmers are dealing with desert locust swarms of “unprecedented size and destructive potential” that could spill over into more countries in East Africa, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has warned.


One of the 10 biblical plagues said to have been delivered upon Egypt, the locust has struck dread into the hearts of farmers for millennia. And with good reason.


Claiming its crown as the oldest migratory pest in the world, the average adult locust can eat its own bodyweight (roughly two grams) in fresh plant vegetation every day. And thick swarms – potentially containing hundreds of millions of individual insects – can move at an alarming clip: 150km a day. Added to that, with good rainfall and favourable ecological conditions, the insects swiftly reproduce and numbers can increase 20-fold in just three months.


Unseasonal rains that drenched East Africa in December have caused the population of the desert locust (Schistocerca gregaria) – considered the most destructive locust species – to positively skyrocket, devastating rural livelihoods in the process. 


With hundreds of thousands of acres of cropland already destroyed by blanket swarms of the indefatigable pest, the threat to food security is becoming more real by the day. In response, the FAO – a UN agency – has urged for a collective campaign to tackle the crisis, concerned over the risk that swarms will spill into more countries in East Africa, “if efforts to deal with the voracious pest are not scaled up across the region”. The agency stressed that as favourable breeding conditions continue, the increase in locust swarms could last until June. And left unchecked, the numbers of crop-devouring insects could grow 500-fold over that time period. 


Unprecedented threat


The sheer magnitude of the problem may prove difficult for many to comprehend – yet an FAO estimate of one particular swarm in Kenya as stretching 40km wide by 60km long offers some sense of the alarming scale.


In early January, Kenyan media showed police shooting bullets and teargas at an oncoming swarm, as residents banged on buckets and hooted car horns to try to frighten the insects. While such tactics may seem absurd, they nonetheless vividly demonstrate how those who have seen a locust swarm’s devastating potential first-hand are willing to try anything to prevent it. 


Certainly, Kenya has not faced a locust threat of this magnitude in 70 years, while the outbreak of desert locusts has also affected parts of Somalia and Ethiopia, where this is said to be the largest-scale event of its kind in at least a quarter of a century. Meanwhile, South Sudan and Uganda currently remain unaffected, yet are still at risk, the FAO added. 


In a recent statement, FAO Director-General Qu Dongyu said the agency is activating fast-track mechanisms to support governments, warning that the situation is now of “international dimensions”. 


“Authorities in the region have already jump-started control activities, but in view of the scale and urgency of the threat, additional financial backing from the international donor community is needed so they can access the tools and resources required to get the job done,” Mr Qu said.


According to the UN agency, “given the scale of the current swarms, aerial control is the only effective means to reduce the locust numbers”. 


The FAO is assisting with forecasts, early warning and alerts on the timing, scale and location of invasions and breeding.


Mr Qu also warned the response must include efforts to restore people’s livelihoods. "Communities in Eastern Africa have already been impacted by extended droughts, which have eroded their capacities to grow food and make a living. We need to help them get back on their feet, once the locusts are gone," FAO’s Director General said.


The UN is seeking US$70 million to urgently support both pest control and livelihood protection operations in the three most affected countries.


Global swarming


Nor is this modern-day plague a problem for East Africa alone, with areas of southwest Asia and the Red Sea region also affected. 


Numerous desert locust swarms have been breeding in India, Iran and Pakistan since June 2019 – and some have migrated to southern Iran where recent heavy rains have nurtured a breeding ground that could generate swarms in the spring.


Egypt, Eritrea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Yemen are also seeing substantial breeding activity that could lead locust bands to expand into swarms in the coming months. In response, the FAO has said it “stands ready to leverage its expertise and facilitate a co-ordinated response to this voracious crop pest”.


During plagues, the most devastating of all the locust species “can easily affect 20 per cent of the Earth's land, more than 65 of the world's poorest countries, and potentially damage the livelihoods of one-tenth of the world's population”, according to the FAO. The UN agency – alongside farmers the world over – will be hoping they can curb the destructive powers of Schistocerca gregaria before it achieves such biblical levels of devastation.

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