In the worst desert locust outbreak in decades, tens of billions of locusts are moving across East Africa, Southwest Asia, and the Arabian Peninsula, devouring crops and potentially leaving millions of people without enough food to survive. Experts say the combination of already fragile regions due to conflict, drought and other factors, together with influx of desert locusts amid a pandemic will lead to an unprecedented humanitarian crisis.
In what the United Nations is calling “a scourge of biblical proportions,” swarms of locusts are traveling up to 90 miles in a day, covering areas as large as 155 miles wide. To date, they have reached 23 countries, including, Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kenya, Ethiopia, Somalia, and South Sudan.
During the last six months, the number of locusts has increased 400 times. The locusts — a species of grasshopper — began appearing as a result of heavy rains in the Arabian Peninsula in 2018. Experts say extreme weather events have created ideal breeding conditions.
people are facing hunger and starvation in the impacted regions
Above, a swarm of locusts in South Sudan.
Like the coronavirus pandemic, the locust swarm, if left unaddressed, could spread exponentially, bringing significant health risks, impacting economies, affecting livelihoods, and worsening hunger for the 42 million people in the impacted regions. Locust swarms are primarily controlled by spraying concentrated chemicals by vehicle-mounted and aerial sprayers. In addition to controlling the spread of locusts, funding is needed to support the livelihoods of those impacted.
“This massive crisis is totally off the radar of the international community,” says Esther Watts, Country Director of CARE Ethiopia. “Crops have been ravaged by locusts, leaving the country on the brink of a catastrophic hunger crisis.”
The locust invasion, together with climate extremes and COVID-19, are putting unprecedented pressure on women. These combined threats are creating food shortages, which will likely lead to spikes in malnutrition in the affected communities. Women are particularly vulnerable because they often eat least and last in thier families, especially during crises.
This massive crisis is totally off the radar of the international community.
During the last locust outbreak from 2003 to 2005, which impacted 20 countries, mostly in Africa, children were less likely to go to school, and girls were disproportionately affected. During the current outbreak, experts are predicting an increase in dropouts as children trade school for work to help support their families.
East Africa is the epicenter of the current locust crisis. In Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, South Sudan, and Sudan, over 25 million people are already facing hunger and food insecurity. If the locust swarms persist and control measures are unsuccessful, more crops will be lost, and livelihoods will be further impacted.
In the Arabian Peninsula, locusts are damaging farmland in Yemen, where conflict has been raging for more than five years and an estimated 20 million people are food insecure and need assistance for survival.
In Afghanistan, the country’s fragile health system, coronavirus lockdowns, market closures, and lack of food are seriously impacting women and children. Mamoon Khawar, CARE Afghanistan’s food security and livelihood’s lead, says more women and children are begging on the streets, making them vulnerable to gender-based violence.
“Many women in the agriculture sector lost their jobs, as landowners prefer to hire men,” Khawar says.
Elsewhere in Southwest Asia, the convergence of locusts with natural disasters such as flooding and cyclones will likely increase humanitarian needs. In February, Pakistan authorities declared a nationwide emergency as locust swarms decimated crops and sent food prices soaring.
CARE, which has a presence in all affected countries, is supporting with logistics and emergency response, such as helping governments gather information about the locusts and providing emergency food relief .
In South Sudan, CARE staff are doing on-the-ground surveillance, including gathering locust samples and information from affected communities about the size and direction of swarms. CARE Uganda has supported a government campaign to stop people from eating locusts (a traditional dish in the country) as it may lead to poisoning from the chemical sprays used to control the locusts.
Agelo Darius, a 63-year-old man living in northern Uganda, says, “We ate desert locusts in old days. They were source of food and tasty. This time, we are warned not to eat.”
The UN states it needs over $300 million in funding and has been critical that resources “have been too slow in coming,” citing a growing funding gap. The cost of responding to this crisis will be at least 15 times higher than the cost of preventing the spread now, according to the World Food Programme.
“The math is clear, as is our moral obligation,” states the UN. “Pay a little now, or pay a lot more later.”