image Photo: Reuters

COVID-19 hampers battle against expanding locust infestation

Desert locusts in East Africa were decimating crops and boosting the number of people reliant on food aid even before the advent of the coronavirus, but the pandemic is now hindering efforts to combat the infestation of nearly Biblical proportions.

In its latest report on food crises around the world, the United Nations World Food Program (WFP) warned that the COVID-19 pandemic could almost double the number of people suffering acute food insecurity (IPC/CH 3 or worse) to a total of 265 million by the end of 2020.

The worst locust outbreak in a generation has seen hungry swarms – with some amounting to the size of entire cities – sweep across Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya since December, destroying swathes of farm and grazing land.

Now, a second generation has spawned just as crops are being planted for the new season, threatening the livelihoods of more than 20 million people in the Horn of Africa.

88 million people live in the 10 countries where the worst food crises were manifested in 2019: Yemen, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Afghanistan, Venezuela, Syria, Nigeria, Haiti, Sudan – as well as Ethiopia and South Sudan. The last two are also among the six East African countries worst affected or at risk of locusts, in addition to Uganda, Tanzania, Somalia and Kenya – where around 20 million people are already experiencing acute hunger.

The Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) has vowed that efforts to contain the desert locust upsurge in East Africa are ongoing despite restrictions on movement of personnel and equipment as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The desert locust is considered the most destructive migratory pest in the world, and a single swarm covering one square kilometer can contain up to 80 million locusts.

Over one million hectares of land in East Africa have been surveyed for locusts and over 240,000 hectares treated with chemical pesticides or biopesticides. 740 people have been trained to conduct ground locust control operations.

In northern Kenya, immature and mature swarms are still present where they are maturing and laying eggs. Several more hopper bands have been reported in the northern county of Marsabit but the majority of hatching has yet to occur or be detected.

FAO Project Officer Ambrose Ngetich told Reuters that, “You find that every time you are trying to control in one region, there is another swarm that is happening in a different region, and it is not possible to control them simultaneously. Because most of the time they are at different stages, so it requires a lot of personnel and capacity to be able to undertake all the control operation and also managing the surveillance in terms of the ground team.”

The FAO has been training farmers to use motorized sprayers to contain the locusts, but the outbreak of COVID-19 has had an impact on badly-needed supplies. Delivery of the sprayers and pesticides has also been delayed due to the significant reduction of global air freight amid restrictions on the movement of personnel and equipment imposed by governments.

“When we want to load an airplane early in the morning, there is also the restrictions of timing and also locating the swarms because of the curfew (imposed due to the pandemic),” explained Ngetich. He said the FAO is working to “come up with innovative ways” such as “reducing the number of populations that are being met at once for the training, as well as also engaging the security officers so that they can allow a small extension of time for the locust scouts as well as the operation team.”

Anti-virus measures have posed major challenges particularly for small-scale farmers. “It’s a very big problem for food security in Kenya, especially after problem like coronavirus. How are we gonna feed Kenya?” said farmer George Dodds, stressing, “All of our produce is for local consumption, and I think everyone needs to take this seriously and support every way you can because it’s a very big problem, for Kenya as a whole.”

But “nowhere else in the world has the level of food insecurity as South Sudan,” said the WFP country director, Matthew Hollingworth.

61% of South Sudan’s residents were already in a state of food crisis, or worse, in 2019. Last December, the UN said $270 million was urgently required in the first half of 2020 to mass starvation. The world’s youngest country has been plagued by droughts in recent months and flooding which have destroyed crops and livestock, leaving millions without food. At least 400,000 people were killed and millions of others were displaced from their homes when civil war broke out in the oil-producing country in 2013, less than two years after the country gained independence from Sudan following decades of war.

“Last year we had to feed five million people due to fighting and flooding,” said Hollingworth, adding, “Already in 2020 we have had locust invasions and now there is the COVID-19 pandemic – which we predict could almost double the people in acute hunger by the end of 2020 across the world.” He then appealed that, “The only way we can halt this trend is if generous funding for humanitarian crises like the one here in South Sudan continues.”

“If my children survive, I want them to go to school and learn to take care of themselves,” said Sarah Nyak, whose family is being treated for malnutrition at a health center in Juba.

Locust swarms are not new to East Africa, but climate scientists say erratic weather linked to global warming has created ideal conditions for the pests to surge in quantity to numbers not seen in a quarter of a century.

Immature and mature swarms are also still present in southern Ethiopia, where they are maturing and laying eggs. Some swarms have spread out to other areas of the country, mainly in the east, including the Somali region and the Ogaden where breeding is underway and hopper bands have formed. Since the start of this month, breeding was reported to be in progress in northwest and northeast Somalia that could eventually result in the formation of new groups and swarms.

Somalia declared the infestation a national emergency on 2 February, but the war-ravaged nation has struggled to control the swarms due to insecurity, remote locations and a lack of resources. The country was plunged into nearly three decades of violent turmoil following the 1991 ousting of President Siad Barre – first by clan warlords and then Al Shabaab Islamist militants trying to topple the central government.

The FAO estimates that 4.5 million people in Somalia, including its breakaway regions of Somaliland and Puntland, are at risk of hunger and loss of livelihoods. Rural areas and populations expected to be most affected by the locust infestation including riverine farmers, agropastoralists, pastoralists and those already displaced.

“Even in times of coronavirus, we must not forget the massive threat that desert locusts pose to Somalia’s food security and livelihoods,” said the country’s Agriculture Minister Said Hussein in a statement, underscoring that authorities would do what they could to help farmers and herders avoid a loss of crops and livestock due to the locust infestation despite challenges posed by COVID-19.

UN and government officials announced yesterday that surveillance teams and specialized vehicles are being deployed to prevent desert locust swarms from ravaging Somalia’s crops and pastures; but the FAO estimates that so far, just over 8% of the 360,000 hectares believed to be affected have been treated with biopesticides. Even though there have been delays in acquiring resources due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the country has been able to mobilize three helicopters to conduct aerial spraying and has acquired 2,000 kilograms of biopesticides, while increasing the number of vehicles mounted with sprayers to 33 as additional staff are being hired and trained to conduct ground surveillance and control operations across the country.

International donors have committed almost $25 million – 40% of $57 million required – to help Somalia contain the infestation and help with recovery efforts.

“It is crucial that we keep reinforcing our collaboration and continue the hard work to contain the desert locust upsurge, and to protect lives and livelihoods,” said the FAO’s Somalia representative Etienne Peterschmitt in a statement.

While there is still no indication that the massive locust invasion will spread to Israel, it is forecast to extend to new areas.

According to the latest update of the FAO’s Locust Watch database, inIn addition to the “unprecedented threat to food security and livelihoods in East Africa,” the Indo-Pakistan border area and perhaps the Sahel of West Africa now “face an impending invasion from spring breeding areas.”

Here are relevant portions of the Desert Locust situation update 8 May 2020:


In Saudi Arabia, hopper bands along the Persian Gulf have fledged and formed groups of immature adults. This will also occur shortly in the Nafud Desert in the north and probably in the Al Aflag area south of Riyadh. In Oman, adult groups are maturing in the north, and breeding continues along the UAE border and in the northeast where hopper groups are present. Ground control operations continue in both countries. In Yemen, swarms are laying eggs in areas of recent rainfall along the southern coast, and in the interior on the edge of Ramlat Sabatyn and on the plateau north of Wadi Hadhramaut. Survey and control operations are required.


In Iran, hopper bands persist on the southwest coast and near the Strait of Hormuz. Adult groups laid eggs in Sistan-Baluchistan where surveys should be intensified to detect hatching and band formation. In Pakistan, hopper and adult groups persist in Baluchistan, adult groups have formed in the Indus Valley, and hopper groups and bands are present in Punjab. Hopper groups, bands, and adult groups are present on the Indo-Pakistan border in Punjab of both countries. Migration from the spring breeding areas in Baluchistan has commenced, and several immature adult groups and swarms have appeared since 2 May in Rajasthan, India. Control operations continue in all three countries. Increased monitoring and reporting are required in desert areas along both sides of the Indo-Pakistan border.


There is a risk that a few swarms could reach the eastern part of the Sahel in eastern Chad from spring breeding areas in Arabia and East Africa (Kenya and Ethiopia). The swarms would first appear in Sudan where it is currently dry and the situation is calm. If they arrive in Sudan before the summer rains, then the swarms are likely to continue westwards across the Sahel from Chad to Mauritania. The first appearance in eastern Chad could be as early as the second week of June from Arabia and the last week of June from East Africa. While the current threat is assessed as low, it can change significantly during this month due to rainfall, winds, and spring breeding in Arabia and East Africa. Therefore, investments in preparedness and anticipatory actions should be immediately and quickly scaled up to face this potential threat.

— By Erin Viner