The Hill | Locust Response in East Africa: Sounding the Alarm

This piece originally appeared in The Hill.

A locust crisis of historical proportions continues to spread across almost a dozen countries in East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. Widespread rains in late March helped create the second generation of locust swarms that are becoming active now. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is assisting surveillance and spraying operations in ten of the hardest-hit countries.

However, the UN effort remains underfunded to the tune of over $26 million and an updated funding appeal is expected shortly. The effort to address the damage done by the expanding locust infestation will require much more focus and attention, increased political will, and significant financial resources. The United States needs to move quickly to mobilize support if the region is to avoid massive food insecurity. 

The scale of devastation is difficult to comprehend. Locust swarms initially concentrated in Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia, but now threaten to become more severe in Uganda, South Sudan, Yemen, Pakistan, and southern Iran.

In one day, a 1 square kilometer swarm can eat enough crops to feed 35,000 people. The next two months are truly critical. Rains could lead to a 400-times increase in locust numbers by June. This would coincide with the planting season that began in April in East Africa, a region that is already home to 20.2 million people facing severe acute food insecurity.

In recent years, Ethiopia and Somalia have faced severe drought and high rates of food insecurity. Refugees International conducted missions to both Ethiopia and Somalia in 2019. Displaced populations in both countries faced similar vulnerabilities.

Only small amounts of humanitarian aid, if any, reached them and government support was limited. Food insecurity was a constant concern and mothers told Refugees International that they would frequently skip meals so that their children could eat. Access to water and even basic health care was often out of reach. 

The coronavirus pandemic has complicated the situation significantly. The severity of the COVID-19 crisis in the region could be devastating and much of the recent policy focus is on combatting the spread of COVID-19.

Ethiopia and Somalia have taken steps, including developing individual national response plans, to help in the escalating COVID crisis. But financial resources are limited to respond and the underlying vulnerabilities of the population in the region, including the food insecurity that will be exacerbated by the locust impact, must be also addressed.  

The only way to effectively eradicate locust swarms is by spraying pesticides over large tracts of land. But acquiring pesticides and spraying equipment from abroad has become much more difficult amidst the slowdown in global supply chains and cross-border mobility. Governments have acknowledged these significant challenges and highlighted the need for continued commitment to this crisis response.

National ground control teams have treated over 240,000 hectares of land across 10 countries, and FAO has already trained 750 people to carry out pesticide spraying and swarm surveillance.

These substantial efforts must continue to expand, as the scale of the infestation means there is even more land to be sprayed and more teams to be deployed. In addition, the most vulnerable populations will require food security assistance, cash-based support, and resources for livelihoods to weather the storm.

In addition to spraying, urgent humanitarian assistance must be delivered to those in need and COVID-19 response strategies must be coordinated so as not to conflict with a prompt and sufficient locust response. With FAO taking the lead, the international community has substantively responded to the crisis and raised $126.8 million of FAO’s requested $153.3 million.

But reaching the full amount requested is crucial. While the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) has thus far allocated $19.3 million to help curb the spread of the locusts, providing equipment and training for ground operations, there is another aspect of this crisis that must be addressed: supporting community livelihoods and promoting early recovery.

Though 89.7 percent of funding for Ethiopia’s spraying and tracking efforts have been met, only 46.2 percent of livelihood protection resources have been raised. A great deal can be achieved through cash injections and farming and livestock-based recovery packages that would help at-risk communities.

International donors, including the United States, must respond more robustly as the crisis escalates over the coming weeks and months. While USAID’s Food for Peace and other donors have been increasing visibility on the issue, more resources are needed for food and livelihood support. The COVID-19 impact is going to make this vulnerable population more at risk but the global response must incorporate the ongoing locust battle. 

Ann Hollingsworth is director of government relations and senior policy advisor at Refugees International where she leads the organization’s advocacy efforts. Stefan Bakumenko also contributed to this piece.