East Africa and the Horn of Africa are struggling with another huge problem despite the global pandemic — a Locust plague. If we don’t address climate change and prevent these plagues on time, they might dramatically threaten food security around the world.
While doctors and governments are struggling to combat COVID-19 and flatten the curve, people locked inside their homes are eager to hear some good news.
They are desperately waiting for the time they can freely leave their homes, without fearing they might get infected with the dangerous virus. People keep asking- Will things get better soon?
Unfortunately, the world is about to face a global economic and climate crisis, I am afraid.
Meanwhile, amid a global pandemic, East Africa and the Horn of Africa are dealing with another huge problem — a massive Locust plague! Apart from the health and well-being of citizens, the plague is threatening the economies of the countries there.
Swarms keep spreading, and they have already destroyed hundreds of thousands of hectares of crops and pastureland in eight countries—Kenya, Uganda, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia, Eritrea, Djibouti, and Sudan.
Experts fear that, without expedited preventative measures, these swarms will migrate from East Africa to West Africa. It’s predicted that millions of people in East Africa will experience food insecurity this year with the locust infestations compounding the situation.
The rapid change of weather patterns has caused last year to be one of the wettest years ever recorded in the eastern part of the continent.
This provided the ideal breeding ground for locusts, and they are now swarming in the trillions, destroying pastures and crops, wreaking havoc on local economies, and leading to famine.
Dino Martins, an entomologist that works at the Mpala research center in Northern Kenya, lists four reasons for this: deforestation, overgrazing, local environmental degradation, and the expansion of deserts.
And of course, the human intervention, that has led to climate change in the first place.
“As terrifying and as dramatic as they are, there is a deeper message, and the message is that we are changing the environment.”
The ongoing climate change will lead to more and more rain in the area, and the locusts will keep on reproducing and thriving. The first massive swarm appeared late last year, the second wave occurred in April, and the third was expected to be last month.
Locusts look like regular grasshoppers and often live a solitary life. Yet, they gather in groups during dry spells, as they need to feed on and live in smaller areas that still have vegetation.
When crowded, their central nervous systems release serotonin, and its increased levels cause increased and varied appetite, makes them more sociable, and promotes more rapid movements.
Therefore, as they are crowded, they reproduce more rapidly during rain and eventually shift to a gregarious phase or a group lifestyle. This boosts their endurance, their brains grow larger, and their bodies and color change.
At this point, they create swarms, which are always in motion, covering up to 8 miles a day. They remain in the air long, without needing rest, and can cross vast bodies of water.
These plagues entirely devastate agricultural areas, leading to famine and poverty. In a single day, a locust eats its weight in crops. Currently, the most efficient way to control locust plagues is the use of pesticides.
Experts try to predict the areas where swarms may develop and spray there before they happen.
Yet, this is challenging as well, considering the limited resources of countries and the remoteness of the breadth of the area.
Rick Overson of Arizona State University’s Global Locust Initiative explained that apart from the small scope of these solutions, we won’t be able to use them forever.
Pesticides are highly harmful to the environment and human health. Apart from locusts, they kill important insects as well, including bees. The chemicals eventually sink into the soil and leach into crops and bodies of water and eventually return in our food.
“It’s hard to maintain funding and political will and knowledge and capacity building when you have these unpredictable boom and bust cycles that could play out over years or decades.
The drama and spectacle of the outbreak right now is important to cover, but the more nuanced narrative involves the slow, ratchet method of building infrastructure: If you wait until it’s reactive and forget about it until it happens again, we’re going to be in this situation forever.”
The director-general of FAO, Qu Dongyu, asked for time and cooperation, and warned that locust plagues, combined with the coronavirus pandemic, could lead to catastrophic consequences on local livelihoods and food security. He added:
“Our gains have been significant, but the battle is long and is spreading to new areas. It is clear that we cannot declare victory yet. Upsurges of this magnitude are rarely defeated in a few months.”
Locust swarms are just a reminder that we need to act fast and stop climate change before it devastates the entire world.