Driven by climate change, heavy rains this spring gave rise to vast swarms of locusts that have been obliterating crops across Kenya, Ethiopia, and Somalia, leaving a trail of destruction the likes of which haven’t been seen for generations. Over the past few months, the insects have rapidly spread north, crossing the Gulf of Oman to infiltrate Iran, Pakistan, and India. The combined damage from locusts, rains, and economic fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic have now become what the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization has called an unprecedented threat to food security in these regions.
“The farmer is hit by the triple threat of locusts, flooding and unusually heavy rainfall in some seasons, and then Covid restrictions,” says Lydia Zigomo, Oxfam’s regional director in the Horn, East, and Central Africa. “Which means they can't move their goods to market very easily because of the travel restrictions that have been placed between cities and towns.”
The locust’s dietary proclivities make it a particularly menacing pest: according to the FAO, an average-sized desert locust swarm can consume as much food as 2,500 people in a single day. “In the case of the desert locusts, they're highly polyphagous, which is a nerdy way of saying they're not picky eaters at all,” says Rick Overson, research coordinator at Arizona State University’s Global Locust Initiative. “They eat pretty much everything. But that being said, cereal crops are more on the carbohydrate scale and are most susceptible and preferred, and the most heavily damaged economically.” Humanity’s staple crops—wheat, sorghum, millet, rice—happen to be cereal crops loaded with carbs. Once they’ve feasted on those carbohydrates, the insects grow bigger faster, accelerating their march.
Even if an East African farmer’s crops survive the insects, heavy rains exacerbated by climate change might wash away the remaining plants. “And on top of that, [farmers] are affected by Covid,” says Zigomo. “Not so much in this region in terms of the high numbers of infections, but rather the restrictions are impacting measures to try to bring this locust under control, and also impacting the ability of farmers to trade their produce. All of these things are happening at the same time, creating a perfect storm.”
If a farmer can’t get to market to sell their crops, not only do they lose out on income, but the urban residents who rely on them for food go hungry. “So we're talking about 30 to 33 million people being severely food-insecure in this region of Eastern and Central Africa in the coming weeks and months,” says Zigomo.
The Covid-19 lockdown has also complicated the fight against the locusts. To be sure, requiring people to shelter in place early in the pandemic is critical for avoiding the even worse economic devastation that would come with runaway viral outbreaks. But Africa’s fight against the locusts requires constant coordination between the FAO and national governments, and the constant movement of supplies.
“Unfortunately, the lockdown coincided with the time when we were importing the bulk of our pesticide equipment and also a number of aircraft and flying crews,” says Cyril Ferrand, the FAO's Resilience Team Leader in East Africa. “So yes, we have had delays in supply.” For example, he says, one pesticide delivery to Kenya was supposed to arrive in mid-March, but only just recently landed in the country.
Luckily, the supply chain for these pesticides and equipment is globally distributed, so a disruption in one exporting country doesn’t completely stop the flow of goods. But in the time of Covid-19, deliveries have slowed, leaving crews without the chemicals they immediately need to destroy the swarms before they grow to unmanageable sizes.
To further complicate matters, some countries haven’t seen locusts for so long that governments have lost the institutional knowledge needed to stave off the threat. Normally, the FAO and other groups would fly in experts for training sessions, but the disruption of travel has put the kibosh on that.
The timing of it all has been devastating. Heavy rains in 2018 allowed the locusts to establish themselves in the remote deserts of Oman, evading the vast network of human observers on the lookout for young insects. When a second generation of locust swarms started popping up this past February, ballooning through June and spreading throughout Africa, it coincided with farmers’ growing season.
Crews were able to fight back some of the swarm with pesticides, “but we cannot control all the swarms,” says Ferrand. “So we have a number of swarms that got away from our control system, reached maturity, bred, and then are going to generate a new wave.” This one will be extremely dangerous for pastoral areas, which are reaching the end of their rainy seasons. “These new swarms are really eating a lot of ranchland, then there will be no rain to regenerate the pasture land starting at the end of June,” Ferrand adds.
The locust invasion of India and Pakistan in recent weeks is a bit less dire, thanks to opportune timing with their growing seasons. At the moment, many fields have already been harvested, and farmers haven’t yet sown their next crop. But the region is entering its monsoon season, and that’s a concern because locusts require rain to breed. (Females deposit their eggs in sand, and the eggs will cook if the sand isn’t wet.) If India and Pakistan can’t sufficiently control these pests, they could be susceptible to the same brutal cycle that’s plaguing Africa: Rains come, the locusts breed, a new generation is born and obliterates crops, and breeds once more when rains return. This can continue year after year, leading to famine.
In normal times, that’d be catastrophic—during a pandemic, it will be all the more horrific. As with climate change in general, environmental disasters disproportionately affect the poor, and exacerbate long-standing gender inequalities and other ills. For example, women are typically expected to care for children, which becomes extra stressful if a family is uprooted. “The depletion of crops will only increase the distance and migration that pastoralists or farmers will have to do, and that travel is really difficult for women,” says Barri Shorey, senior director of Economic Recovery for the International Rescue Committee, a humanitarian organization. “And also the violence that we know is now happening in homes as resources get more scarce.”
But perhaps, Shorey says, dire times bring with them a unique opportunity to confront inequalities—training programs, for instance, to get women more involved in their local economies. “Not just thinking about things in terms of making programs accessible to women, but how are programs actually changing the norms and the responsibilities and the behaviors of women in the household?” asks Shorey. “How can we use that to our advantage in times of deep crisis?”
Matters across Africa and the Indo-Pakistan region could get much, much worse in the months ahead; the countries of West Africa are now on alert, with the swarms potentially spreading there over the next few months. To fight back, the supply chain for pesticides needs to be bolstered, experts say, and the region is going to require a massive amount of foreign aid as scarcity takes hold. “Food security is a real problem here,” says Oxfam’s Zigomo, “and requires investment and humanitarian assistance.”