A locust plague has raged in East Africa for months. Huge swarms of crops destroy crops, the food supply to the population is at risk. But in the face of the corona pandemic, the region threatens to be left alone.
The first warnings came in July 2019. In the face of heavy rainfall, the World Food Organization feared a sudden increase in the desert grasshopper in East Africa. Ten months later, the second wave of locust plague is spreading across countries like Kenya, Somalia, Eritrea and South Sudan and destroys a large part of the vegetation in the affected regions. Fields are eaten empty, while the cattle find no more food in the pastures. In June and July, the third wave threatens to coincide with the harvest of the remaining plants.
Even small swarms of a square kilometer destroy a lot of food per day that could feed 35,000 people. Already at the beginning of the year reports reported swarms as large as the Saarland. The region is facing the worst plague in 25 years – in Kenya it has not been as dramatic in seven decades.
The Corona crisis doesn’t make the situation easier. Because air traffic is limited, some pesticide deliveries have to be embarked, which means that the insecticide is only available later. Exit restrictions could also make control of the plague secondary. Young animals that could now be controlled effectively could grow into reproductive grasshoppers. At the same time, governments around the world are dealing with the Covid 19 pandemic. The misery of the people in East Africa could therefore go under.
Locusts – loners and swarm animals
Migratory grasshoppers, including the desert grasshopper, are not necessarily a threat to vegetation. Rather, the insects exist in two different forms, each of which is genetically identical, but differs greatly in behavior and body structure. In the so-called single phase, the animals are local. However, if the population exceeds a certain number due to favorable breeding conditions, the animals change. The reason for this is an increased release of serotonin.
The grasshoppers become darker and larger in the swarm phase, their metabolism accelerates and they multiply faster. The animals also begin to form flocks and migrate. These properties increase with each new generation. The result: the swarms get bigger, consume more food and therefore move on. A swarm travels up to 150 kilometers a day. The number of grasshoppers is exponential: in three months the population can increase twenty-fold, in six months the number of grasshoppers is 400 times under favorable conditions, and 8,000 times after nine months.
Affected countries have already been weakened by other crises
The locusts encounter countries that are weakened by armed conflict and natural disasters. Plagues that occur regularly in Yemen on the Arabian Peninsula are known and have been successfully countered in the past by early intervention. Current however, civil war is raging and the grasshoppers were able to multiply practically unhindered. According to Welthungerhilfe, the various shoals have already laid their eggs inland. There is currently heavy rainfall, which leads to optimal propagation conditions for the insects.
There are also armed conflicts in some regions in East Africa. In South Sudan, for example, it already existed before a hunger crisis as a result of years of civil war. The region is also affected by extreme weather conditions such as droughts and heavy rain. The renewed plague of locusts exacerbates the already precarious situation of the people.
Added to this is the corona crisis. Many people have lost their income from either the locust plague or the pandemic restrictions. At the same time, food is becoming scarce and prices are rising. So the price of bread in Sudan has doubled. That overwhelms people. Carolin Schmidt from Welthungerhilfe, program coordinator in South Sudan, confirms that more than half of the people in the country can no longer eat adequately without help.
Matthias Späth, Country Director of Welthungerhilfe in Ethiopia, assumes that the consequences of the corona pandemic, together with the locust plague, will remain felt for at least one to two years and that the people affected will need support. The plague could spread to other parts of Africa. If massive containment is not successful in East Africa, the grasshoppers will continue to migrate. The swarms of insects could penetrate as far as West Africa.
A swarm of locusts invades Kenya: the insects destroy the vegetation and thus the livelihood of the population. (Source: Xinhua / imago images)
Widespread pesticide use can create new problems
In the affected areas of East Africa, governments are now trying to curb the plague through the widespread use of pesticides. Wherever pesticides are available, they are used against the swarms from the air. But not only locusts die from the toxins. Useful insects also die. In addition, the pesticides get into the soil – when the grasshoppers are gone and the soil can be reapplied, the substances migrate into the food chain.
Welthungerhilfe is therefore committed to using mechanical methods to combat pesticides as well. For example, local people are trained to drive locusts that are still unable to fly into shallow ditches and to burn or bury them there. At the same time, the population receives support in the form of food, replacement for lost cattle or seeds.
To ensure the survival of the people affected, however, further financial aid is necessary. The global community has already responded, providing $ 120 million. Germany also participates with 20 million euros, as Federal Development Minister Gerd Müller explains in an interview with t-online.de.
In the medium and long term, early warning systems must also be set up. Reliable financing is also required for this. Since the widespread use of toxins also endangers the health of the population, Welthungerhilfe advocates the research and use of biological insecticides. These can be plant insecticides, for example.
Climate crisis favors grasshopper plagues – and makes them more unpredictable
Locust plagues in the region occur regularly, favored by the weather phenomenon “Indian Ocean Dipole”. The surface of the sea in the eastern Indian Ocean is particularly cool, causing extreme drought on the one hand in Australia and pushing air masses to the west on the other. As it travels across the Arabian Sea, the air absorbs a lot of moisture – if it hits the African continent, heavy rainfall occurs. Without these, the locusts would not be able to reproduce enough to form swarms.
The dipole usually occurs every four to six years. But now the weather constellation came three times in a row. Climate researchers assume that the climate crisis has a significant impact on ocean currents and phenomena such as the dipole. Locust plagues could therefore not only occur more irregularly, but also more frequently. This means even more uncertainty for the people of East Africa.