“Imagine a swarm of locusts the size of Manhattan,” says Keith Cressman, the UN’s senior locust-forecasting officer. “In one day that swarm could eat the same amount of food as everybody in New York and California combined.”
As most countries grapple with the coronavirus pandemic, the world has paid little attention to the “crisis within a crisis” currently affecting parts of Africa and Asia. The countries in the Horn of Africa—Ethiopia, Somalia, and Kenya—have been acutely hit, as they face locust infestations of a magnitude not seen in more than half a century. New broods of desert locusts are set to hatch right in time for the next harvest, and with mitigation strategies hampered by efforts to curb the coronavirus, some now worry that the region’s food crisis could develop into a devastating famine.
According to the 2020 Global Report on Food Crises, 135 million people across fifty-five countries were already at risk of starvation before COVID-19 hit. Twenty percent of these people live in East Africa. The desert locust now threatens the food security of a region that was already contending with intense drought, floods, heavy rains, and war. The emergence of the locust threat, according to Cressman, has the potential to “tip the balance into extreme food insecurity” for these vulnerable countries.
The infestation began in 2018 as unusually severe cyclones passed over the vast and remote Rub’ al Khali desert in the southern Arabian Peninsula. Large deposits of rainwater collected in the sand dunes, creating ideal breeding conditions for one of the most devastating pests in the world: Schistocerca gregaria, or the desert locust.
There have been great improvements in locust mitigation over the past century, but the window for controlled prevention is short. In 2019 and 2020, conditions conspired to create an especially severe infestation. Watered by freak cyclones, the locusts traveled to war-torn Yemen, then spread without much resistance, northward to Iran and southward toward East Africa.
In a cruel twist, this region, which has been stricken by intense drought over the past three years, is now being hurt by the rains it has waited so long for. These rains will of course help the crops planted in April but they will also help the locusts and their eggs, which will hatch just in time to allow a new generation of the voracious insects to consume crops before they can be harvested.
In January the FAO made an appeal for $76 million dollars in international assistance. It has subsequently raised the appeal to $153 million. According to Cressman, they’ve received about three-quarters of this amount so far. Half of the fund is intended for the aerial spraying of pesticides in Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia, while the other half will go to those who have lost crops or pastureland.
In these African countries, where the vast majority of the population relies on agriculture to survive, this aid cannot come quickly enough. Despite the help of organizations like the FAO, however, some are still falling through the cracks.