Coronavirus Complicates Fight against Desert Locust Invasion in East Africa

Shutdowns could impede treatment and monitoring efforts, experts say, fueling further concern about food security in the region.

Find more of our Covid-19 coverage.

The hordes of desert locusts block out sunlight in massive swarms, often more than 100 miles in size. They move and eat quickly. A desert locust can travel up to 90 miles in a single day and eat its bodyweight in plants — including crops — in the same amount of time.

photo of locusts
A desert locust swarm taking to the sky in northeastern Kenya in January. Photo by FAO / Sven Torfinn.

Billions of locusts appeared in Somalia and Ethiopia in the summer of 2019. They have since spread to Djibouti, Eritrea, Kenya, South Sudan, Sudan, Uganda, and Tanzania, according to an emergency map compiled by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). According to the FAO the locusts endanger food security for some 25 million people. A second wave began descending in April, and experts are concerned it could have an even more devastating impact on the region.

The United Nations has called for $153 million to control these pests, but as the coronavirus spreads across Africa it may become increasingly difficult to combat the swarms. Already Kenya is battling its largest outbreak of locusts in 70 years. Somalia and Ethiopia have not faced an invasion of this magnitude in a quarter of a century.

“This is a scourge of biblical proportions” the FAO said in a recent statement, even before additional locusts arrived in April. “Yet ancient as this scourge is, its scale is unprecedented in modern times.”

According to Keith Cressman, Senior Locust Forecaster at the FAO, the enormous swarms are a result of changing weather patterns, caused by global climate change. “Climate conditions are a driver of locust population dynamics,” Cressman wrote in email to Earth Island Journal. “Rain is an enabler of desert locust reproduction. Given the right conditions a locust population can increase 20-fold in population every three months. In the past three years we’ve seen an increase in frequency of cyclones on the Indian Ocean that played a role in breeding this current upsurge.”

In 2018, two cyclones caused heavy rainfall in “The Empty Quarter,” a vacant stretch of the Arabian Peninsula that normally receives just three centimeters of rain a year. NASA surveillance reported that lakes formed between sand dunes after Cyclone Mekanu. In October, Cyclone Luban dumped more rain in the desert. These conditions proved optimal for the locusts, which breed in moist soil. The pests flourished and spawned three generations in just nine months, according to Cressman.

The swarms then crossed the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden from Yemen, arriving in the Horn of Africa. The region was flooded by Cyclone Pawan in December 2019, allowing for another meteoric rise in the locust population.

The locusts have invaded countries already threatened by food insecurity. In 2018, The World Food Program estimated that 2.7 million people in Somalia could not meet their daily food requirements, and that 300,000 children under the age of five were malnourished. Locusts have also attacked crops in Uganda’s arid Karamoja region, which is the poorest in the country, with 61 percent of the population living in poverty, also as of 2018.

The pests can rapidly devastate lives and livelihoods. Villagers in Somaliland, a semi-autonomous state in the northern tip of war-torn Somalia, told Reuters that the locusts descended on crops with fury, devouring everything in sight.

“Thousands of hectares of pasture and croplands have already suffered damage in Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia, and there are potentially severe consequences for the region where millions rely on agriculture and livestock rearing for their survival,” Cressman noted.

photo of locusts
A desert locust eats foliage as a swarm settles in northeastern Kenya. A locust can eat its bodyweight in a single day. Photo by FAO / Sven Torfinn .

Some swarms of locusts are as large as metropolises. According to Cressman, a swarm the size of New York City can consume as much food as the human populations of New York and California combined in just 24 hours.

Experts estimate that advantageous breeding conditions created by March’s heavy rainfall will allow locusts to multiply 400-fold by June, just as farmers begin to harvest crops.

The FAO has resorted to aerial spraying of both bio and chemical pesticides to control the hordes, alongside extensive ground control measuresenacted in cooperation with local governments. In Kenya, for example, volunteers have been trained to monitor the size of the locust population and its impact on crops, while crafting control campaigns and prevention strategies.

Chemical pesticides used to the control the locusts include; chlorpyrifos, diflubenzuron, deltamethrin, fenitrothion, fipronil, teflubenzuron and triflumuron.

Biopesticides, which are comprised of fungus and vegetable or diesel oil, can help eradicate young locusts before they form large bands. These have fewer negative environmental impacts compared to chemical options, as they target locusts specifically, though they are believed to impact at least a few other species.

Chemical pesticides, however, work faster than their more environmentally friendly counterparts, which can take some two weeks to have their intended effect, and so must be used in crises like this one, according the FAO. This comes with the added consequence of killing pollinators and disrupting ecosystems.

These pesticides have also been linked to a variety of health problems including, cancer, childhood disease, and endocrine disruption. Green groups have petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency in the United States, for example, to ban use of chlorpyrifos, exposure to which has been tied to damage to childhood brain development.

Some scientists are experimenting with alternative treatments and mitigation measures. Researchers at the University of Graz in Austria are exploring botanical treatments they think could be much more effective than biopesticides, without the environmental and health downsides of chemical pesticides. Researchers at the Arizona State University, meanwhile, are studying whether certain farming practices could make crops less appealing to locusts.

In the meantime, managers are left with chemical pesticides, an imperfect solution.

“Total eradication is not possible. But we can limit the damage by reducing locust numbers,” Cressman said of the situation in east Africa. More than 2,400 hectares of land in 10 countries have so far been treated with chemical or biopesticides.

Ongoing efforts may be stymied by the coronavirus pandemic. Earlier this month, Al Jazeera reported that flight restrictions and travel bans have delayed the delivery of pesticides to countries combating locust invasions.

“The biggest challenge we are facing at the moment is the supply of pesticides and we have delays because global air freight has been reduced significantly,” Cyril Ferrand, FAO’s Resilience Team Leader for East Africa, said in a press statement earlier this month.

“Our absolute priority is to prevent a breakdown in pesticide stocks in each country. That would be dramatic for rural populations whose livelihoods and food security depend on the success of our control campaign,” he continued.

Kenya previously reported pesticide shortages, but Ferrand says the FAO is working to boost national pesticide production there, as well as to ship pesticides internationally.

It has also become increasingly challenging to access helicopters used for locust surveillance, which were being sourced from South Africa, as strict lockdowns have been imposed in the country, Nonetheless, United Nations representatives have vowed to persevere, despite difficulties.

“We were indeed expecting helicopters from South Africa for surveillance,” Ferrand wrote in an email to Earth Island Journal. “This is unfortunately not possible due to COVID-19 and we are looking at alternative solutions.”

Ferrand says that the organization has employed remote data collections strategies, to ensure the threat caused by locust swarms is still closely monitored in areas where ground mobility is limited due to the coronavirus, and continues to rely on a network of grassroots organizations and other partners on the ground.

To date, the FAO has raised only $111 million of its $153 million goal to combat the locust swarms. Now the world’s attention is diverted.

UN officials assert that a quick response is necessary: “The situation in East Africa is not at plague level, but this upsurge could become a plague — hence the need for swift action to inhibit another round of reproduction,” Cressman said.

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