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How locusts are threatening people’s survival in East Africa

News28 April 2020Hannah Myerson

Just months after the worst locust outbreak in a generation hit East Africa, a second wave of locusts is looming alongside coronavirus. The situation is fuelling fears of a major humanitarian crisis – and is a stark reminder of the region’s vulnerability.

A plague of locusts

After two devastating cyclones hit East Africa in May and October 2018, heavy rainfall followed - providing the moist, warm conditions desert locusts require to breed. In January 2020 the largest locust infestation in decades struck Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya. Swarms of locusts swept through the region, devouring tens of thousands of hectares of cropland.

The consequences of such large swarms have already proved to be catastrophic. 13 million people in the region faced food insecurity before the swarms, and many rely on farming and livestock rearing to survive. Now their crops are being eaten while their livestock are at risk of collapsing from starvation.

How has the situation developed?

While initially only Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya were affected, swarms of locusts have now been sighted in Djibouti, Eritrea, South Sudan, Uganda and Tanzania.

Things are evolving at a rapid pace; not only are locusts able to move quickly across vast distances, but heavy spring rains have sustained these humid weather conditions - allowing new swarms to breed. It’s expected that billions of young locusts will soon be on the move in a destructive search for fresh vegetation. This second wave is predicted to be up to 20 times larger.

This comes at a time when most farmers have just planted the season’s first crops. If the locusts continue to multiply, they could devastate lives and leave people at risk of starvation.

East Africa: a region overwhelmed

East Africa is a region that’s been affected by conflict and intense climate-related shocks. Most recently, a prolonged period of drought from 2018-2019 left millions of people facing severe food shortages. This was followed by one of the wettest rainy seasons in 40 years, with abnormal levels of rain causing widespread flooding, displacing hundreds of thousands of people and triggering crop and livestock losses.

Communities were just beginning to recover from these intense blows, yet they now face another major threat to their survival in the form of desert locusts.

Locust in Cara-Cad Village, Somalia. February 2020 Photo: Concern Worldwide
Locust in Cara-Cad Village, Somalia. February 2020 Photo: Concern Worldwide

What can be done to help?

The most effective method of controlling the outbreak is spraying pesticides in small, concentrated doses on the hatched locusts using vehicles and aerial sprayers.

However, shortages of equipment and increased rainfall in recent months have hindered aerial spraying, alongside conflict in certain areas. There have also been issues regarding the residual effects of particular pesticides which impacts how water, food, pasture and the locusts can be handled after being sprayed. There are less harmful, plant-based pesticides available but they’re in short supply.

Concern has been working with affected communities in Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia, providing cash payments to affected families to buy fodder for livestock, food, seeds, agricultural tools and other basic items.

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How might Covid-19 affect this situation?

The coronavirus pandemic is slowing efforts to fight the infestation, affecting the supply of pesticides and making it difficult for planes and technical experts to reach these countries.

Governments have been prioritising the continuation of aerial spraying where possible, but these plans could be impacted by lockdown measures as Covid-19 spreads.

Concern is monitoring the situation closely and exploring all possible options to ensure that food gaps are met – but it’s an extremely worrying time.  

The next wave of locusts could devastate the lives of millions in East Africa, but the window of opportunity is still open. 

Please donate to our East Africa Locust Emergency Appeal now.

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