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Locust threat extends to new areas

Locust swarms are continuing to pose an enormous, immediate threat to food security and livelihoods in east Africa. In addition, the Indo-Pakistan border area, Sudan, and perhaps the Sahel of West Africa also face an impending invasion from spring breeding areas according to the latest update from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). Ethiopia and Kenya are currently the worst hit by the locust infestation.

In western India, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat are the worst affected states and KL Gurjar, deputy director of India’s Locust Warning Organisation, told BBC:

“We are battling a major locust attack from across the border. This is the biggest invasion in nearly three decades. The swarms are very big and they have migrated from across the border after breeding a month earlier than we were expecting.”

The situation is all the more alarming as it comes at a time when the region is already suffering under Covid-19 and the ongoing heatwave. Neighbouring Pakistan declared a nationwide emergency in February and local reports say that farmers are fighting the “worst locust plague in nearly three decades” as the swarms are decimating crops.

Locusts are a collection of certain species of short-horned grasshoppers and they can form swarms, which can be dense and highly mobile and can then fly as much as 150km a day, given favourable winds. The Desert Locust is the most destructive migratory pest in the world and swarms can devour large amounts of vegetation and crops which has severe consequences in a region where millions of people are already food insecure.

IOHR spoke to Keith Cressman, senior locust forecasting officer at the FAO, about the impact of locust swarms on food production. He said that a swarm of just more than a third of a square mile can eat the same amount of food in one day as 35,000 people.

“To use the same statistics, a swarm the size of Rome, in one day, can eat the same amount of food as everybody in Kenya.”

Kenya has a population of 53 million people.

It is predicted more than 25 million people in east Africa will experience food insecurity in 2020 with the locust infestations compounding the situation. In Ethiopia a million people need emergency food aid after 500,000 acres of crops have already been wiped out, according to the Ethiopian government and the FAO. Some farmers lost 90 per cent of their crops in the first wave of locust to hit Ethiopia.

“The humanitarian impact is unprecedented,” Mr Cressman told IOHR. “In east Africa, there’s about 20 million people that are acutely food insecure and this is the level below famine. […] About 70 per cent of those areas that are acutely food insecure are the areas where the desert locusts are so you can start to understand the potential impact that these countries could be facing in the coming months.”

Climate change has created unprecedented conditions for the locusts to breed in the usually barren desert of the Arabian gulf, according to experts, and the insects were then able to spread through Yemen, where civil war has devastated the ability to control locust populations. Some forecasters suggest that an increase in the frequency of Indian Ocean cyclones could be due to global heating, which may lead to more regular locust swarming in Africa.

“This whole crisis was initiated by cyclones and we have noticed, in the past few years, there has been an increase in the number of cyclones every year. […] In 2019, there were eight cyclones when normally there is one cyclone or no cyclones,” Mr Cressman told IOHR.

Managing locust swarms is best done before they form and regular monitoring is essential.

Small numbers of the insects can be controlled relatively easily, but once the numbers grow, “the only effective way to reduce the numbers and the pressure on the pastures and crops is aerial control,” Mr Cressman told IOHR.

Countries like Kenya, having little recent experience with locusts, took a few months to set up control operations. With locusts multiplying exponentially, that is valuable time lost. Authorities in the affected countries have already sprayed pesticides on thousands of hectares of land but control operations are falling behind.

In April, only a quarter of the area affected by locusts was treated. Locust populations are expected to increase 20- or even 400- fold in the months to come.

The measures put in place to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic are also further complicating efforts to fight the infestation as crossing borders has become harder and pesticide deliveries are held up but according to Mr Cressman the delays have not been significant and governments affected by the locusts have given free access to the teams involved in the locust campaign to continue their work.

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