Men fend off a swarm of desert locusts in Samburu, Kenya, Jan. 17, 2020. (CNS photo/Njeri Mwangi, Reuters)

“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.

The locust infestation has been aggravated by three other looming problems: war, entrenched poverty, and, above all, climate change.

Like the COVID-19 pandemic, the locust plague cannot be dealt with effectively without coordination on a regional scale. Like viruses, locusts pay no heed to national boundaries. Once they reach the flight stage of their development, they can travel for hundreds of kilometers in swarms numbering in the hundreds of billions. Because of changing weather patterns, some of the countries affected by these swarms have little experience of—and no preparation for—the locusts. Now, having already diverted their limited resources toward the coronavirus pandemic, they are beset by two new disasters at once.

Although teams on the ground are doing their best to combat the swarms, a dramatic reduction in the locusts’ number will depend on the weather, which has favored them for the past two years. Unless temperatures fall, the rain stops, or strong winds arrive to carry the insects to areas less vulnerable to infestation, Cressman says we should expect the locusts to return to Kenya by the end of the year. And even if the situation gets better in Kenya, it will get worse elsewhere: “The problem doesn’t really just go away.”  

In Uganda, a country once on the periphery of the infestation, people are now going hungry because of it. Twenty-two years of civil war have displaced people, destroyed livelihoods, and degraded the environment—and now come the locusts.

Alfred Olwa, the bishop of the Diocese of Lango, puts it bluntly: “If people are not given food aid or alternative livelihood options, they will die of hunger.” He reports that, despite reaching out to international organizations, as of May 4 the diocese has not yet received any funds. Unable even to pay its own staff, the diocese is pleading for outside help: “We invite the Western world to support the vulnerable Ugandans and save their lives so that we don’t allow especially the orphans, the widows, persons with disabilities, and other vulnerable groups to succumb to death from hunger. The Church at such a time, being in an unenviable position as a messenger of hope, is greatly constrained in its mission of proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ to hungry and destitute people.”

The World Food Program projects that the number of people at risk of starvation is set to double by the end of 2020. The time to act is now, but many fear that, in the midst of a global pandemic, it will be very difficult to mobilize the international community to notice or deal with any other crisis.

For some Ugandans, the threat posed by the coronavirus pales in comparison to that of the locusts, but, according to Bishop Olwa, the government has redirected the bulk of its financial resources to fight the pandemic, not the infestation. In addition to infecting a growing number of people, the virus has threatened the supply chains both for food and locust-mitigation equipment. 

Cressman notes that many of the necessary experts from abroad had already traveled to East Africa before travel restrictions for the coronavirus began to tighten, but social distancing is now making it difficult for them to train new technicians for locust control. 

Apart from the pandemic, the locust infestation has been aggravated by three other looming problems: war, entrenched poverty, and, above all, climate change. It is a catastrophe in its own right, but it is also a dress rehearsal for the devastation we can expect in many other parts of the world if we fail to curb the use of fossil fuels.

Emily King is an intern at Commonweal.

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Published in the June 2020 issue: View Contents
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