With imposed flight restrictions across borders to help contain the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic, countries in the East and Horn of Africa are finding it hard to respond to a double shock as a second wave of desert locusts loom.
Juliana Nkirote, 49, a smallholder farmer in Ntangilia, Kenya, watched helplessly last February as an army of locusts landed in her two-acre farm, devouring her source of livelihood. Now she’s bracing for their return.
“When I heard there would be a second wave of locusts, I had to harvest the remaining crops before maturity. I have been relying on this farm to feed my family and pay for my children’s education, but things look tough ahead,” she told Climate Tracker over the phone.
Nkirote, like many smallholder farmers across East Africa, banks her hopes fo curbing the migratory pests’ infestation in the governments’ response through aerial and ground spraying. But measures to contain the spread of Covid-19 have shifted the focus, opening the fields to the hungry swarms that once more descend over the region.
Crowding locusts and dwindling supplies
Claire Nasike, a food campaigner at Greenpeace Africa, says many farmers do not work in their fields due to the ongoing lockdown. That, in turn, slows up response to the locusts.
“Smallholder farmers majorly rely on crop farming for their daily livelihood, and when locusts swarms land, they are left to use desperate means to scare the migratory pests communally. But with the government having discouraged crowding, this means the insects will spread further,” Nasike told Climate Tracker.
Danger is growing. According to FAO, more locust swarms are forming and maturing in the Kenyan north and centre, Ethiopia’s south and Somalia. The threat to food security and livelihoods in the region is unprecedented, as it coincides with the beginning of the long rains and the planting season.
The shutdown measures currently in place in most countries mean limited air travel. This stops pest management teams from flying to countries that need them, such as Uganda and South Sudan.
“Worse still, these countries do not have national locust control programs, hence they lack the needed systems in place to mount an effective defence. The supply of commodities to ward off the locust infestation is not inexhaustible. While it’s possible to make do with what’s available, there will likely be shortages once these reserves are depleted, given the prevailing disruption of global supply chains due to COVID-19,” said Kim Kariuki, Engagement Director at Busara Centre for Behavioral Economics.
The Kenyan administration admitted that the sprays used in January this year were ineffective, the Daily Nation reported. Added to a current shortage of pesticides, that means new supplies need to be urgently sourced and shipped. But given the circumstances, that’s not an easy task, as these have traditionally been flown in from South Africa in now grounded airplanes.
When Covid-19 started to spread to countries all over the world outside of China’s Wuhan, East Africa was already grappling with locust swarms. That first wave has had a historic impact on countries in the region. According to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), these are the worst locust swarms in 70 years for Kenya. Ethiopia and Somalia hadn’t seen anything like this in a quarter of a century.
FAO donated 10 pickup vehicles mounted with sprayers and three aeroplanes to the Kenyan government. Since January, some 62,000 hectares have been treated from the combined FAO and the government of Kenya resources, with Kenya getting an allocation of US$ 21.4 million from its scaled-up appeal to US$ 153.2. A locust swarm of one square kilometre can eat the same amount of food 35,000 people consume in one day.
A climate for breeding locusts
Climate is not helping either. According to FAO, widespread rains in late March allowed the new swarms to mostly stay in place, mature and lay eggs. Some groups were able to move from Kenya to Uganda, South Sudan and Ethiopia.
“The adult locusts are likely to start laying eggs in May as ongoing heavy rains since March provide suitable conditions. The eggs will hatch into hopper bands, and then form new swarms in late June and July, which coincides with the start of the harvest season,” said Tobias Takavarasha, FAO Representative ad interim to Kenya.
In an email interview, Professor Baldwyn Torto, Head of the Behavioural and Chemical Ecology Unit at the International Centre for Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE) told Climate Tracker that there has to be a regional and multi-institutional coordinated effort to reduce the risk of these migratory locust swarms.
“Governments should work with locusts scientists involved in forecasting to identify the breeding sites and get control officers on the ground as quickly as possible to control juveniles as they emerge,” says Prof. Torto, a Principal Scientist and Extraordinary Professor at the Department of Zoology and Entomology at the University of Pretoria, in South Africa.
Human lives at risk
As the locust threat returns, some groups are more at risk than others. Agro-pastoral communities across the region are particularly vulnerable. Some of those groups have only recently recovered from a long drought, followed by floods. FAO estimates that some 70,0000 hectares of land have been infested in Kenya alone.
An estimated 20 million people in South Sudan, Uganda and Djibouti are staring at a looming food crisis, and are likely to experience acute food insecurity. The region which relies on agriculture for roughly one-third of its gross domestic product and more than 65 per cent of its employment.
Dr Mark Boit, a researcher in Agriculture and Environment says with more waves in store, complete eradication of the swarms will depend on climate change and efforts to contain them before the next breeding cycle.
“These migratory pests’ transformation and swarming are triggered by rain. Desert locusts can only lay their eggs in moist sand, since dry sand would cook them”, explained the researcher.
“After a storm, the locusts breed and hatch eggs but if the rains and the environment don’t favour them, then they won’t hatch normally. And if countries manage to predict their next landing areas then it is possible to plan the aerial and terrestrial spraying missions in time reducing them to zero in the end,” added Dr Boit, currently lecturing on geoinformatics at the Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology.
Professor Baldwyn says each female locust can lay three egg pods in her lifetime, with each egg pod containing about 60-70 eggs. Therefore, if conditions are favourable, the locusts’ reproductive rate is very high.
Fighting on their own
“My big concern is whether our government will look into our plight when locusts come again. It seems more focused on Covid-19. We foresee a situation where we will have to fight on our own,” Joseph Mathenge, 48-year-old father of six, a farmer in Laikipia told Climate Tracker.
“Efforts to contain desert locusts require an integrated approach. The African continent needs to support its own researchers and research institutions, secure people’s livelihoods by distributing food aid to affected areas and carry out some compensation to the affected farmers,” concluded Elizabeth Gulugulu Machache, a Zimbabwean environmentalist and climate activist.
Header photo: Charles Kariuki