Explainer: Locust Crisis Worsens Food Insecurity in East Africa

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The worst locust outbreak to hit East Africa in decades has now entered its first breeding period, and locust numbers could increase 20-fold. In just a couple of months, locust swarms have affected more than 1.2 million hectares of crops and pasture in a region where 20 million people already face food insecurity from past droughts, floods, and conflict. A rapid, coordinated international response is the only way to stem this outbreak as a new generation of locusts is born. In addition, proactive infrastructure investment needs to go hand-in-hand with the emergency relief that is ongoing in the region. 

Since the beginning of the year, swarms of mature locusts have been roaming Kenya, Ethiopia, and Somalia. This is the worst locust invasion Kenya has seen in 70 years, and the worst for Ethiopia and Somalia in 25 years. A few weeks ago, a large locust swarm entered South Sudan, where 60 percent of the population is already food insecure and one-third of the population is displaced.

Warming waters in the Indian Ocean in 2019 created an abnormal number of tropical cyclones, and the unusually high levels of rain and flooding set up perfect breeding grounds for locusts along the coast. The current swarms are thought to have originated in war-torn Yemen, posing a compounding challenge to the many Yemenis already facing hunger. Yemen’s national response teams have only mobilized to contain the locusts in the few places safe enough to operate in. Therefore, the effect of the locusts on whatever is left of Yemen’s crops appears smaller than it really is, as most of the country simply cannot be accessed. 

Desert locusts eat their body weight in food—two grams each day—and the average swarm carries approximately 150 million locusts. A swarm can move up to 100 miles a day. The only way to combat locusts is aerial pesticide spraying, but Kenya and Ethiopia reportedly only have four planes each to manage the crisis. Flying over Somalia is made even more difficult by the presence of al-Shabaab insurgents in the countryside. Officials in Sudan, Eritrea, and Saudi Arabia have also been undergoing control operations as new swarms pop up along the Red Sea. 

What’s at Stake?

The United Nations (UN) initially requested $76 million for emergency relief, but that figure has now almost doubled to $138 million. In its call for aid, the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) stressed the possibility of additional displacement caused by food insecurity in the region. Last year’s droughts and floods had already displaced tens of thousands of people in East Africa, with 3.4 million affected by flooding as of January. 

It is difficult to estimate how many will be impacted by the locust outbreak. However, the sheer number of already food-insecure and disaster-affected people in the path of the swarms underscores the urgent need for a comprehensive international response. UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock and FAO Director-General Qu Dongyu have warned of a continued, crisis-level spread if international response does not catch up. They argue that, while ending the outbreak with the requested funds is unlikely, it may be possible to destroy enough of the currently active swarms so that ground teams can start handling any new swarms and take control of the situation.

Keith Cressman, a senior locust expert at FAO warns that the current outbreak could become a full-scale plague should the weather keep working in the locusts’ favor. Such a scenario could have devastating consequences. During the 2003-2005 locust plague in West Africa, $2.5 billion in crops were lost. Therefore, it is imperative that the international community doubles down on current efforts to avoid catastrophe should the locusts spread further. 

What Is Being Done? 

Cressman has explained that half the funds will go towards control operations like aerial spraying and ground logistics. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and FAO have cooperated in providing 5,000 sets of protective equipment and training for 300 pest experts and scouts. Just last week, the United States pledged an additional $10 million to combat the locust menace, bringing official U.S. aid up to $19 million. While promising, the UN has only received $52 million thus far. As swarms become more geographically spread out across multiple nations, the logistics alone will become overwhelming. Therefore, a swift response is now critical.

Aside from this short-term mobilization, both inter-governmental coordination and social safety infrastructure must be strengthened. This transnational threat to local food chains has exposed a lack of reliable emergency programs protecting rural communities. Thus, the other half of the UN funds are going towards tangible livelihood recovery like seed packages and animal feed for affected farmers and pastoralists. Past Refugees International reports have emphasized the capacity-building aspect of international aid, rather than simply reacting to disasters after they occur. 

The international community must invest in long-term rural protection frameworks, both within and between these countries, to address the highly unpredictable and destructive menace of locusts. These frameworks can include cash and food deliveries for food insecure households, increased market access for pastoralists, and regional disaster coordination programs. In order to survive, the people of East Africa depend on their crops and cattle. The international community must protect these resources across the region to alleviate hardship. But building resilience for future disasters is an equally important goal that must be incorporated into today’s international response. 

Stefan Bakumenko is a climate displacement program intern at Refugees International.