Despite a year of control efforts, a new generation of desert locust swarms is now threatening the agricultural livelihoods and food security of millions in the Horn of Africa and Yemen. The United Nations is appealing for funds to support surveillance and control operations in the most-affected countries.
The other plague
Locust infestations have increased in the past few months, especially in Ethiopia and Somalia due to favorable weather and rainfall. Locust opulations are now predicted to increase even more in the coming months and extend across the region, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said.
“We have achieved much, but the battle against this relentless pest is not yet over,” said the Director-General of FAO, QU Dongyu, in a statement. “We must not waiver. Locusts keep growing day and night and risks are exacerbating food insecurity for vulnerable families across the affected region.”
Locusts have caused famines and widespread destruction since the time of Egyptian pharaohs — famously being one of the biblical plagues. However, in recent times, the pests have become more and more aggressive. FAO estimates desert locust swarms could threaten the livelihoods of 10% of the world’s population if current trends continue unabated.
The most effective way to fight locust outbreaks is by mass aerial sprays of pesticides. However, many countries lack the financial resources and infrastructure required to mount a long-range pest management strategy. This is why governments plagued by locusts are left scrambling for solutions.
More than 1.3 million hectares of locust infestations have been treated in ten countries since January thanks to international support and a response campaign led by FAO. This has helped to prevent the loss of about 2.7 million tons of cereal worth $800 million, which is enough to feed 18 million people a year.
However, the struggle is far from over. New locust swarms are already forming and threatening to re-invade northern Kenya and breeding is also underway on both sides of the Red Sea, posing a new threat to Eritrea, Saudi Arabia, the Sudan, and Yemen. This was worsened by the cyclone Gati, which allowed locusts to expand.
The second wave
When plentiful rain falls and annual green vegetation develops, locusts can increase rapidly in numbers and, within a month or two, start to concentrate and become gregarious. Unless checked, this can lead to the formation of small groups or bands of wingless hoppers or swarms of winged adults.
Controlling these swarms is complicated by several factors. The swarm is highly mobile, migrating from 50 to more than 100 km in a day; the total invasion period frequently occurs in a relatively brief time, sometimes as short as a month; swarms are variable in size and can extend up to thousands of hectares. So basically, you’ve got a huge but very mobile wave you need to control somehow — and it’s not easy.
The FAO argues that countries in the Horn of Africa are now much better prepared than for the last invasion. The UN agency has so far received $200 million from donors, which has allowed to rapidly scale up locust response capacity. Over 1,500 control personnel have been trained and 110 spraying vehicles are operational.
Still, FAO is now asking for another $40 million in donations to increase surveillance and control activities next year. More than 35 million people are already acutely food insecure in the five countries most affected by locusts, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, the Sudan and Yemen, and this could worsen with the current outbreak.
“We lost so much of our pastures and vegetation because of the locusts and as a result we are still losing a good number of our livestock,” Gonjoba Guyo, a pastoralist in North Horr sub-country in northern Kenya, told BBC. “I have lost 14 goats, four cows and two camels because of the locust outbreak and now there is lots of fear.”