East African locust swarms threaten food security in the region

Since the beginning of 2020, countries in East Africa have been battling some of the largest desert locust swarms seen in a generation. Emanating out from the southern Arabian Peninsula, these swarms have devastated crops in countries like Kenya and Ethiopia, which were already facing problems of food security. 

As an even larger swarm emerges in this region, other groups of locusts have moved into India, creating similar concerns about agriculture and food stability. What is driving these swarms, and what can be done to deal with the current crisis and prevent others in the future? 

In 2018, Cyclone Mekunu struck the Arabian Peninsula and created  conditions for locust population growth in the undeveloped Rub’ al Khali desert. Shortly after, another cyclone hit the same area, allowing the already large population to expand even more. With both cyclones prolonging the optimal conditions for locust breeding, populations in the 

Arabian Peninsula increased 8,000 fold. From there, locust swarms crossed into the Horn of Africa, which has also seen increased amounts of rainfall in the past years, especially from a late 2019 cyclone that hit Somalia

The favorable conditions created by these cyclones and a generally wet year for East Africa can be partially attributed to the Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD). This phenomenon sees an oscillation in sea temperature in the Indian Ocean, with a positive cycle causing warmer oceans along the coast of East Africa. Warmer oceans bring more moisture to the region and also spawn more intense and frequent cyclones. The 2019-2020 IOD cycle was particularly strong, and is thought to have created the wet conditions that allowed locust swarms to proliferate. 

Since entering the Horn of Africa, locust swarms have spread and grown even larger, putting millions at risk. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) predicted that upwards of 25 million people in East Africa would face food insecurity in late 2020. 

A new swarm in late May means that for farmers in countries like Kenya, newly planted crops could be destroyed by swarms, leaving whole communities without food later in the year. If preventative measures fail and control of the swarm proves inadequate, the FAO estimates that an additional 5 million people could fall into insecurity.

To make matters worse, the most recent swarms are coinciding with measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in East Africa. The lockdown of countries and breakdown of vital supply chains means that materials used to kill locust or protect crops cannot or have not arrived. 

In Somalia, shipments of pesticides are several weeks delayed due to the crisis, resulting in even more damage to agriculture and food stocks. Additionally, aid that might have gone to helping deal with the locust swarms is now being diverted to address the spread of COVID, leaving fewer and fewer resources to the governments that are battling these swarms. 

A swarm of desert locusts can fly up to 200 kilometers in a single day and can contain more than 100 billion individuals; obviously, no one state is capable of responding to such a large, mobile threat. With this in mind, countries must work together to mitigate the spread of these swarms and prevent ruther breeding cycles that would only exacerbate the damage. 

Currently, the FAO is the organization most involved in this crisis, but funding for the FAO is not adequate to properly deal with the swarms. In order to obtain the supplies and machinery necessary to combat this threat, more funding must be secured. As it stands, only 28% of the FAO’s $76 million request has been fulfilled

In terms of technical response to these swarms, the most effective way is deploying pesticides, sprayed from either backpacks or airplanes. In order to prevent further environmental damage from dangerous chemicals, certain areas are using bio-pesticides to ensure that farms and grazing land are not contaminated after the locust swarm is gone. 

While these bio-pesticides are better for local communities, they have the downside of requiring longer exposure to kill locusts. Chemical pesticides, which are better at tackling a larger, more mobile swarm, also require cattle to be relocated and farmers to limit exposure to their fields for a day or two. 

An effective response to these swarms would make use of both, with chemicals being used on mature swarms and bio-pesticides on the younger swarms that are not as mobile. More research into new pesticide alternatives could find a better balance between effectiveness and health. 

Beyond this, ending conflict in the region could also prevent further swarms of this magnitude in the region. When locust populations began spreading out from the Rub’ al Khali desert, some landed in Yemen, which for years has been engaged in a civil war. With the government and rebels engaged in conflict, systems in place to monitor for and eradicate locust swarms failed.

The failure to control this crisis in Yemen allowed swarms to enter the Horn of Africa and spread from there. In ending the Yemeni Civil War and other conflict, thus stabilizing the area, future events such as this would be more properly dealt with. 

The rise of sea temperatures and extreme weather events, made even more extreme by the effects of the Indian Ocean Dipole, mean that swarms may become more frequent and larger. 

Ideally, we would address the underlying issues that create these conditions, but in the meantime greater regional cooperation, further exploration of pesticide technology, and fostering stability in conflict zones are the best options to deal with swarms now and into the future.

To read more about the conflict in Yemen and the UN aid there, click here.

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