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Locust Outbreak Threatens Food Security In Africa And Other Parts Of The World

28th December 2020

2020 has been a plague-riddled year in more ways than one.

While most countries of the world are preoccupied with fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, Africa, along with other nations, have been facing another catastrophe: locusts.

In an outbreak deemed to be the worst in decades and potentially more dangerous than COVID-19, massive swarms of plant-eating grasshoppers have invaded multiple countries around the world, from the Horn of Africa to the Middle East and South Asia. 

The unprecedented onslaught by locusts has ravaged their agricultural industry in the affected regions, be it crops or livestock, resulting in billions of dollars worth of damage and putting millions of people under the threat of famine.  

In fact, a December 2020 report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), revealed that 35 million people are already experiencing acute food insecurity just in the five countries that have been hardest hit by locust swarms, with a 3.5-million potential increase by 2021.   

The gravity of the situation has prompted the United Nations to classify the outbreak as a “Level 3” humanitarian emergency, on par with the COVID-19 pandemic and the wars in Syria and Yemen.

With the threat showing no signs of winding down, governments and international organisations have ramped up their efforts throughout the year in order to limit the infestation and avoid a global hunger crisis of epic proportions.

A devastating army bursting in size

A single grasshopper may not cause much of a threat to global food security on its own, but the incredible rate at which these insects reproduce gives them a devastating strength in numbers. 

Generally, locusts are known to multiply collectively. 

A female locust lays about 80-90 eggs, three times in her three-month life cycle. 

They breed frequently especially under drought conditions followed by rain and rapid vegetation growth.

They double 20 times in each generation and can become so large to the point that they block sunlight.

The FAO has also reported, along with the World Meteorological Organisation that desert locusts are capable of increasing their numbers 160,000 times in the span of a single year.

According to Indian news media company The Indian Express, one swarm can grow dramatically to 40-80 million locusts per square kilometre if not monitored.

So, while a single grasshopper consumes only around 2 grams of food per day, the collective impact of a swarm can wipe out entire fields of crops.

The FAO has even estimated that 40 million grasshoppers can devour as much food as 35,000 people would in a single day; that amounts to one person going hungry for every 1000 or so grasshoppers, a frightening prospect judging by how fast these insects multiply.

When the sun rises, locusts turn their bodies in the direction of the sun for heat and when they are warm enough to open their wings, they let themselves be carried away by the breeze, following wherever it goes.

According to Indian scientists, humble locust swarms could travel 125 miles in a single day.

Certain kinds of locust’s swarms in pink and yellow colour can even travel at 200 km per day. This makes it extremely difficult to limit the spread of these insects to a single region.

The locust outbreak in East Africa: an already dire famine situation made even worse

2020 has been a truly dark year for the dark continent from the very beginning.

The Associated Press reported on January 25, 2020, that the East Africa region had experienced the largest locust outbreak in 70 years, followed by a second, which was reported on by the news agency on April 10, and is believed to be 20 times the size of the first wave in certain areas.

The World Bank, an international institution that financially assists middle and low-income countries, communicated on April 14, 2020, that locust swarms have invaded 23 countries across the East African region, the Middle East as well as South Asia.

Usually, the winds bring locusts from the “Empty Quarter”, which is an area of desert in the Arabian Peninsula where they first hatch, through Oman and Yemen, across the Red Sea, Ethiopia, and Somalia every year. 

However, for the first time in 70 years, the wind brought them in large numbers into northern Kenya, where they began to breed locally, experts pointed out. 

Aside from Kenya, locust swarms have been seen in Ethiopia, South Sudan, Djibouti, Eritrea, Tanzania, and Congo. 

Overall, the East Africa region had been bombarded with billions of insects between January and August 2020.

Elsewhere in the continent, the red locust infestation followed a similar outbreak in February 2020 in the Zambezi region, named after the fourth largest river in Africa, which interferes with parts of Namibia, Angola, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Botswana.

Prior to the 2020 locust plague and in six East African countries(Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, South Sudan, Uganda, and the United Republic of Tanzania), about 20 million people had already become food insecure.

In April 2020, Cyril Ferrand, Head of Office of the FAO reported that in Ethiopia alone, an additional one million individuals “have been affected by the desert locust upsurge and require emergency food assistance.” 

Despite year-long efforts to control the infestation including one million acres of land being spread across 10 countries as of December 2020, the East African region is still struggling to limit the outbreak.  

The locusts have ravaged the region’s staple cereal crops, vegetables, fields as well as many other vegetation areas. This catastrophe has cost East Africa great economic losses to the tune of several billion dollars. 

The locust plague reached the Middle East, India, and Pakistan

As 2020 progressed, more and more countries east of the red sea were overrun by swarms of locusts that dealt record-breaking damage for certain regions.

As early as February 2020, Pakistan declared a state of national emergency due to locust attacks in the eastern part of the country, resulting in damage to cotton, wheat, corn, and other crops.

In April 2020, The FAO announced that the situation in Iran and Yemen was also worrisome since a new generation of the locust was emerging. 

In Saudi Arabia, control operations were carried out in May 2020 against immature adult locust groups formed in the Nafud desert in the north and mature adult groups in the south near Yemen.

Likewise, control operations against immature adult groups were conducted in northern Oman near the United Arab Emirates. 

Furthermore, the UAE witnessed an invasion of locust swarms, as revealed by several social media videos that showed hordes of large insects flying over parts of Dubai in late May 2020. 

It has been suggested that the locusts came to the Emirates by strong winds. 

Locusts have also attacked India in late May 2020 in the same manner, as swarms surrounded Jaipur, a sprawling city with a population of 4 million and the largest city in the state of Rajasthan.

During the same period, Locusts flowed from the east (Iran and Pakistan) and covered six cities in western and central India. 

This crisis is considered one of the worst locust swarms that the country has experienced in nearly 30 years, with about 50,000 hectares of farmland destroyed by locusts, which made India experience its worst food shortage since 1993.

What are the reasons behind the Unprecedented Locust Invasion?

The FAO has highlighted that locust swarms are partly caused by climate change and called them an “unprecedented threat” to food and livelihoods.

The belief that wealthy societies that luxuriate in CO2-heavy lifestyles are responsible for the locust crisis seems unlikely at first glance. 

Nevertheless, carbon emissions exacerbate climate change, which causes unusual heat and rain, thus creating a favourable environment for locusts to breed.

Europe, China, and the United States together emit more than 20 billion tons of carbon dioxide per year, compared to less than half a billion in East Africa. 

Weather changes in the years leading up to the locust outbreak have manifested themselves in a variety of ways.

For instance, the preceding five years were marked by an unprecedented rise in temperatures in Somalia, a region from which the Desert Locust normally travels in search of vibrant vegetation that comes with monsoon rains.

At the same time, the rains in the Horn of Africa were 400 percent heavier than usual during the period from October to December 2019. 

Similarly, there have been unusual rains in the empty quarter of the Arabian Peninsula in recent years.

In this context, Ferrand explained, “When plentiful rainfalls and annual green vegetation develops, desert locusts can increase rapidly in number and, within a month or two, start to concentrate and become gregarious, leading to the formation of swarms.”

Roxy Matthew Cole, a climate scientist at the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology in Pune, India, said that the problem started in late 2019 when there was warm water in the Western Indian oceans. This phenomenon was caused by heavy rains in the regions of East Africa and the peninsula. 

This provided ideal conditions for the breeding of locusts.

Other explanations could potentially be unveiled as the FAO continues collecting data on how climate change has affected locust outbreaks.

Prevention is the best cure

According to scientists, attempting to restrain and eliminate large groups of locusts is highly expensive yet not very effective. 

Thus, they advise that the best option is to try to control them directly at their breeding locations. 

In fact, Finding and destroying the insects at an early stage of their life and spraying them with insecticide using the proper technique could potentially put an end to their spread. 

As a result, experts have urged governments to increase aerial surveillance and targeted ground efforts in order to pinpoint the potential high-risk breeding sites of locusts.

Technology and international collaboration are the answer

There was a period in history when the only line of defense that the world had against locusts was primitive, highly ineffective practices that barely impacted their spread.

Such methods included tracking swarms through the desert on camels, blowing whistles and throwing rocks at the insects to drive them away, or even resorting to fires as a method for extermination.

Thankfully, governments now have more advanced, high-tech tools at their disposal to meet the urgency of the moment.

In June 2020, India stationed a helicopter and a dozen drones that sprayed insecticide to contain the outbreak of desert locusts.

The country also started using special vehicles and fire engines for spraying operations in several heavily populated Northern, Western, and central states.

India also utilized drones at night, abiding by expert guidelines, which stated this tactic could help offset the locust attacks, and used the same tools to track the movement of the swarms.

According to an article from E&T magazine published on December 8, 2020, Researchers in Kenya, a country that has been one of the hardest hit by the outbreak, have placed tracking devices on individual locusts in order to study their behavioural patterns.

In addition, a newly developed App called eLocust has been deployed to record and transfer data in real-time via satellite to national locust centers and the Desert Locust Information Service at FAO headquarters. 

More than 450 devices containing the App were dispatched by April 2020 to teams in North Africa, the Near East, and Southwest Asia.

The latest version, eLocust3m, is available for download on any smartphone, making it an accessible tool for anyone looking to report a locust outbreak in any region of the world.

Penn State University Professor David Hughes, who helped create eLocust, revealed in December 2020 that the App had already identified 17,000 outbreaks, and estimated that it had, along with other technology being utilized, saved the food sources of 10 million people from being consumed by locusts.

Additional technology includes drones that the FAO began to employ, in addition to its pesticide-spraying operations, to locate swarms from a height of up to 100km.

NASA satellites have also been put to use in order to pinpoint locations where the soil has a sandy and moist soil composition where female locusts tend to lay their eggs.

The collected data is shared with the FAO scientists who use it to produce models that predict potential hotspots for locust activity.

The FAO revealed in a December 2020 statement: “Control operations have prevented the loss of an estimated 2.7 million tonnes of cereal, worth nearly $800 million in countries already hard hit by acute food insecurity and poverty.” 

The crisis has even pushed countries in the affected regions to put their geopolitical disputes on hold and collaborate in combating an existential threat that acknowledges neither borders nor nationalities.

For instance, the Indian government wanted to tackle this matter regionally and offered to set aside some of its differences with Pakistan to provide the neighbouring country with pesticides to spray on its side of the border. 

In addition, Indian officials stated that they made the same offer to Iran, which responded positively. 

This joining of forces, albeit temporary, is one of the few silver linings to come out of the locust outbreak, a common enemy that requires the involvement of all concerned parties in order to be defeated.

If the crises that the world suffered through in 2020 taught us anything, it would be that having a close-knit global community is becoming increasingly crucial in the face of security threats that can no longer be contained within one region. 

A substantial amount of international collaboration is required now more than ever. 

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