Governments in Africa have already been struggling to cope with the emergence of the coronavirus, in addition to chronic resource scarcity, food shortages, violence and lack of technological expertise; and now they and Middle Eastern hubs are are racing against time to prevent a rising tide of desert locust swarms from wreaking havoc with crops and livelihoods in what has been described as the worst infestation in generations.
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is warning that desert locust swarms infesting the Horn of Africa has reached “extremely alarming” conditions and are poised set to sweep into additional countries in the region and beyond.
There is however, one bright spot on the horizon. Even though the upcoming Jewish holiday of Passover commemorated in the Biblical Book of Exodus includes remembrance of locust plagues, it would seem that the Holy Land is to be spared the devastation this time around. Senior FAO forecaster Keith Cressman told local reporters that “it appears that the swarms will not hit Israel or the country’s crops.”
According to the latest FAO situation update, widespread breeding is in progress and new swarms are starting to form, “representing an unprecedented threat to food security and livelihoods at the beginning of the upcoming cropping season.” Unusual weather patterns exacerbated by climate change have created ideal breeding conditions, due to perfect storm’ of an extended rainy period that created an environment in which the insects could rapidly multiply and hatch.
City-sized clouds of locusts can fly up to 150 km (90 miles) a day with the wind, and adults can consume roughly their own weight in fresh food per day. In fact, experts say that a single square kilometer swarm – estimated to consist of some 40 -80 million insects — can eat as much food as 35,000 people – in just one day. The FAO warned last month that, left unchecked, the number of locusts in East Africa could explode by 500 times by June.
In a region where 19 million people already go hungry, the FAO’s Representative to Kenya, Dr. Tobias Takavarasha, described the locust invasion as a disaster that eclipses all others. He told Reuters that the pests present a far greater danger than droughts or floods.
Kenya, the region’s wealthiest and most stable country, is experiencing the worst infestation in 70 years, say experts. When eggs hatch, as they have doing recently in the Archer’s Post area, young locusts known as “hoppers” are earthbound for two weeks, and more vulnerable to the spraying of insecticides. But Kenya ran out of pesticide for about a week and a half earlier this month, leaving residents and farmers to watch helplessly as the crops they count on to feed their families were devoured. “It’s disturbing because we’ve never seen anything like this, and also when they land on vegetation like this, they eat everything, even the grass,” local resident Josphat Elukumani told Reuters in Swahili. At least 75% of Kenya’s population is estimated to be reliant on agricultural activities.
Aerial and ground control operations are ongoing in Kenya, in efforts to combat a continuation of widespread swarm breeding in the northern and central counties, where “an increasing number of hopper bands and first-generation immature swarms are forming,” reports the FAO. It is feared they will “be supplemented by new-generation immature swarms arriving from Somalia, with a “further concentration” expected in the areas of Marsabit and Turkana.
The military has been deployed in neighboring Uganda to spray trees – by hand – in the mornings, before the locusts take flight.
Ethiopia, where as much as 80% of the population relies on agriculture, is encountering cross-border locust migration from Somalia, as well as Kenya; in its own worst infestation in a quarter-century. Aerial and ground control operations area also being employed to halt spread of the breeding, which is surging in the vast Oromiya and SNNPR regions. Early “instar hopper bands” are forming in some areas of the Rift Valley, and immature swarms are present in the south. Ethiopia needs 500,000 liters of pesticide for the upcoming harvest and planting season, but the country’s single pesticide factory is struggling to produce its maximum 200,000 liters as foreign exchange shortages have delayed the purchase of chemicals.
Dr. Takavarasha says that “the pesticides are available, but the pesticides require financial resources before they can be released.” The FAO has estimated costs of containing the plague at $138 million. So far, donors have pledged $52m.
Other infested African nations include Somalia, where ground control operations involving the spraying of biopesticides are being used against “late instar hopper bands, maturing adult groups and at least one mature swarm on the northwest coast where egg-laying continues.” But the war-torn country, where the infestation was first reported in December, is suffering setbacks as it is unable to provide security to exterminators.
In Sudan, a late instar hopper band, fledglings and an immature adult group and swarm are presents on the southern coast of the Red Sea near the Eritrea border, while there are “scattered adults” in the Tokar Delta, the northeast and in the Nile Valley. There are also immature adult groups on the northern coast of the Red Sea in neighboring Eritrea near the Sudan border, with hopper groups on the Buri Peninsula.
In the Middle East, terrifying images of invading locusts saturating the skies above Saudi Arabia’s city of Khobar were said to have looked like something straight out the Old Testament with a massive, endless swarm several weeks ago. The photographer told Reuters, that “this was the first time I’ve ever seen this type of thing. It was so scary!” Other infested-areas of the Kingdom include a mature swarm and laying adult groups near the Persian Gulf between Dammam and Qaryat Al Ulya, as well as scattered adults on the central Red Sea coast.
Immature swarms have been documented in northern Kuwait and near Kuwait City, as well as in the United Arab Emirates’ western coast near Qatar.
The FAO says that control operations are “in progress” in Iran, where hopper bands are hatching in the southwest (southern Khuzestan, Busherh, southern Fars, western Hormozgan provinces), while local breeding continues in the southeast where hoppers are forming groups and bands in eastern Hormozgan.
Mature adult groups laid eggs in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (Dera Ismail Khan, Lucky Marwat) and Baluchistan (Dalbandin, Kharan, Khuzdar, Washtuk, Turbat) expected to hatch during the second half of March, when they will form hopper groups and small bands. The FAO predicts that “new generation immature groups and small swarms are likely to start forming in Baluchistan” by the end of this month.
China could also face a desert locust invasion, a government body cautioned earlier this week, urging local authorities to prepare for the possible arrival of the voracious insects from neighboring Pakistan and India. Beijing has reportedly set up a task force that will meet this month to monitor and act on any locust invasion, according to statements from officials.
— By Erin Viner