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Unprecedented locust swarms threatening food security in Africa

18 February 20203 min reading

Baby desert locusts in Somalia will become East Africa's next plague wave, UN agronomy experts have warned. Their potential for large-scale destruction is raising fears of food insecurity.

East African nations have been battling with swarms of desert locusts since the beginning of 2020. In what is being called the worst outbreak the region has seen in decades, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations warns that rising numbers of desert locusts present an extremely alarming threat to food security and livelihoods in the Horn of Africa. Since last century, six desert locust plagues or what experts called region-wide "upsurges" have occurred. One of the worst occurred in 2003-2005 in North and West Africa.

According to the FAO’s recent update on the desert locust upsurge, the current situation may be further worsened by new breeding that will produce more locust infestations in Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia and possibly further afield. Swarms, which left damage across parts of Ethiopia and Kenya, could also put Uganda, South Sudan, Eritrea and Djibouti at risk, making it the worst such situation in 25 years, the FAO said. Once in flight and hungry, the swarm could be the "most devastating plague of locusts in any of our living memories if we don't reduce the problem faster than we are doing at the moment," said UN humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock. Locusts can travel up to 150km (93 miles) in a day. Each adult insect can eat its own weight in food daily.

Somalia declared a locust emergency, with its agriculture minister, Said Hussein Iid, warning that "food sources for people and their livestock are at risk." Desert locusts, normally solitary but triggered to swarm by certain conditions, could consume "huge amounts of crops and forage" when present in large numbers, said Iid. Experts say aerial pesticide spraying is the only effective control, but that the current hotspot for maturing locusts is in an inaccessible swathe of Somalia held by or under threat by the al-Qaida-linked al-Shabab extremist group.

The swarms spread into east Africa from Yemen across the Red Sea, after heavy rainfall in late 2019 created ideal conditions for the insects to flourish. The problem could get worse as the year goes on. Aside from growing numbers in east Africa, locusts have also been breeding in India, Iran and Pakistan, which could turn into swarms in the spring. Pakistan has already declared national emergency over locust swarms. The Pakistani government said it was the worst locust infestation in more than two decades. The desert locusts —large herbivores that resemble grasshoppers— arrived in Pakistan from Iran in June and have already ravaged cotton, wheat, maize and other crops. Favorable weather conditions and a delayed government response have helped the locusts breed and attack crop areas.

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