In the shadow of the Corona-crisis, another plague is hitting the poor, destroying livelihoods of millions of people in seconds.
From a distance, they look like clouds of smoke. But as the swarms get closer, they appear, billions on billions of locusts in procession, impossible to count. A vast cloud that shadows the sun and with a deafening sound. It is as if an inferno is coming your way. And they destroy everything edible in their wake. No wonder the Bible is full of references to this tormenting plague.
Now the invasion of enormous locust swarms is happening in a magnitude so immense that they have reached historical proportions. One has not seen such swarms in generations. Ten countries have been affected in the Horn of Africa, in East Africa and Yemen in the Middle East. The swarms have already invaded southern Ethiopia and parts of Kenya and are heading elsewhere. For poor farmers, this is an outright disaster. Around 19 million people are already experiencing a food crisis in East Africa, and worse is to come.
Over the next six months, about 42 million people will be at risk. While the eyes of the world are on the COVID-19 pandemic, there is a huge food crisis under way. That is the result of this scourge. For the swarms of locusts destroy not only the crops but all vegetation on the way. This means that livestock may suffer and die too. Other coping mechanisms for people in food crisis, such as surviving on leaves, is not an option either. Such a crisis unfolded in Northern Ethiopia in 1954. The locusts devoured 100 percent of all green vegetation. A drought followed, and the result was a famine that lasted an entire year.
This time, violent and abnormal downpours and in some cases even flooding have replaced years of drought in many places in the Eastern part of Africa. Attributed to climate change such as El Niño in the Indian Ocean, this has been challenging on its own. Worse, the extreme amounts of rain provide excellent breeding conditions for locusts. The conditions have been ideal for the last 18 months, producing ever more generations of swarms. At the same time, the locusts breed the most in areas that are beyond government control, for example, in Yemen and Somalia. In other words, climate change and conflict are the two factors that now have brought record numbers of locusts to the Horn of Africa and the Eastern part of Africa.
Locusts fly with the wind and can move 150 km in a day. Agricultural experts try to follow the swarms and predict where they might strike next time. With heavy rains in March and April this year, there are fears that a new wave of swarms is on the way, with potentially worst consequences for Ethiopia's prime agricultural area in the northern part of the Great Rift Valley. The country is likely to be the hardest hit this time. In addition to Kenya, which already has suffered larger attacks by locusts, smaller swarms have been observed in the past couple of months in Eritrea, Sudan, Somalia, Djibouti, and Uganda, while South Sudan is at risk.
In some of these cases, the destruction was not as damaging, as the seeds were already in the soil and the swarms came too soon to be able to devour the crops. Instead, they left millions of eggs. They are now about to be hatched to new swarms. In many places, the rainy season is over towards the end of June when crops are getting ready for harvesting. By then, new generations of locust swarms have been hatched, especially in northern Kenya and southern Ethiopia. Experts call them "hungry teenagers". They will be able to take off and go on the attack at the same time as small farmers all over East Africa and the Horn of Africa begin harvesting their spring crops. The swarms can destroy it all.
The agricultural authorities across the region have long since sounded the alarm, struggling to get the resources needed to avoid an outright disaster. They have been supported by the UN organisations FAO (UN Agricultural Organisation) and WFP (UN Food Programme). But they are all in desperate need of funds.
Insecticides are the only thing that helps against locusts. This means simply spraying large areas where the locust swarms make their way. This can only be done by plane. It is very difficult to get to the right place at the right time, even for well-trained pilots. And it can be dangerous, in particular, if the plane suddenly ends up in the middle of a locust swarm. New technology has been developed and is now used to calculate where the swarms are likely to come, and when. This enables pilots to reach their target in a more precise way.
But resources are scarce. Donor countries are more accustomed to providing food assistance than money to fight locusts. This must change. Prevention is better – and cheaper than cure. If many more planes are not taking off at the end of this month, we risk that a catastrophe will unfold in the bread-baskets of the Horn of Africa and East Africa, and likely affect more areas and countries. Massive food aid will be needed to prevent millions and millions of people from hunger and starvation. Even in the midst of the Corona-crisis, also affecting the same countries, we must be able to prevent such a disaster. Action against the locusts must be funded now – right away.
2020 may be the year of the Corona. But it is also the year of the locusts. We have to avoid that it becomes the year of the famine, too.