The desert locust threat recently hit the Horn of Africa, a region slowly recovering from climatic extremes affecting food security in previous years. The situation — described as “back-to-back shocks” —put around 19 million people in the region at risk of severe food insecurity and livelihoods stress.
In January 2020, the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) called for an estimated $76 million to urgently combat rapid locust spread. The cost of tackling locust swarms nearly doubled to $138 million in a month in February.
The international community responded with a pledge of $52 million to date. However, there is still a large funding gap.
In response to the situation, the Africa Solidarity Trust Fund (ASTF) donated $1 million on February 7, 2020 to combat locust swarms in east Africa.
Although this donation by ASTF may appear modest relative to the total amount needed, it is noteworthy that — in the spirit of pan-Africanism — it comes from African countries to support the continent’s other countries.
The support will help strengthen the capacities of affected African countries to combat the locust upsurge from turning into a plague.
The ASTF is an innovative Africa-led fund which supports African development initiatives. This initiative from the FAO received a start-up contribution, totalling $40 million in 2013 from two African countries.
Equatorial Guinea contributed $30 million while $10 million came from Angola in its first phase, along with a symbolic contribution from an African civil society organisation.
The 18 projects funded by ASTF and implemented in 41 countries were praised for providing innovative solutions for African agriculture and food systems. These solutions demonstrated catalytic effects in a few African countries, including leveraging as much as $40 million from other development partners in some countries where they have been implemented.
The second phase of ASTF received pledges committing $25 million by four African countries (Angola, Equatorial Guinea, Eswatini and Zimbabwe) and two non-African countries (China and France).
The ASTF also provided catalytic and ﬂexible funding to support Africa-to-Africa initiatives on food and agriculture systems, at regional and country levels.
The ASTF’s donation of $1 million is similar to its donations in the wake of the outbreak of the Ebola disease in West Africa.
✕Powered by ExploreadsAt the time, the ASTF allocated $1.5 million to support rapid-intervention projects in three countries affected by Ebola (Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone). It also funded projects that control the tomato leaf miner (Tuta absoluta) and fall Armyworm in southern Africa.
ASTF also helped hundreds of thousands of family farmers, women and youth in 41 African countries by supporting a wide variety of projects to help boost rural employment opportunities, increase agricultural production, generate new income streams and build resilience.
The desert locust threat
Locust swarms have plagued countries in Africa, the Middle East and Asia for several centuries.
The locusts are known to be the most destructive migratory pests in the world, depriving farmers and community dwellers of vital means of livelihoods. The swarms unleash chaos — albeit with varying intensities — and are an unprecedented threat to food security and livelihoods in Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia.
This was the worst locust outbreak for Kenya and Ethiopia in the past 70 years and 25 years, respectively. Somalia recently declared a national emergency, the second country to do so after Pakistan. The situation is still far from being under control in many countries.
The desert locusts — as their name implies — have their natural habitat in deserts. The current surge was attributed to unusually heavy rains in the previous season, which came from two cyclones in May and October. A storm in May 2018 had alone supplied enough rain for two generations of locust swarms.
Adding to this, October rains may have supported several months of locust breeding.
An exponential increase of about 20-fold for each generation resulted in a 400-fold increase for two generations of locusts in three months, according to Keith Cressman, the FAO’s locust forecasting officer.
Locusts evaded surveillance and monitoring as breeding occurred in remote locations in the desert. “Nobody knew what was going on because this was just in one of the most remote places on this earth,” said Cressman.
It was estimated that the situation could worsen as breeding could further explode by a factor of 500, if conditions become favorable and multiplication remains unchecked.
FAO’s Locust Watch recently reported a new generation of breeding threatens food security and livelihoods in the region, with extremely alarming situation in Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia (after invasions in Eritrea and Djibouti), but less alarming in Uganda and Tanzania. Cross-border swarm movements between Ethiopia and Kenya were reported to have continued.
Breeding was reported on both sides of the Red Sea in Egypt, Sudan, Eritrea, Saudi Arabia, Eritrea and in Iran’s southeast coast, which may result in fresh swarms soon.
With the rainy season approaching in east Africa, countries are racing against time to avert an impending humanitarian crisis.
What is the extent of the current threat?
It is difficult to precisely estimate costs of losses with control of the swarms being very costly. The potential for destruction is enormous.
A major surge in 2003-05 in West Africa was reported to have cost $2.5 billion in harvest losses. Cressman noted that a single desert locust swarm the size of Brussels could consume Belgium’s entire food supply in a single day.
Locusts can also travel as far as 150 kilometres in a day, consuming food equal to their live weight. A small locust swarm has as many as 40 million locusts. One swarm can destroy crops enough to feed 2,500 people for a year. Each square kilometre devoured by desert locusts is equivalent to enough food to feed 35,000 people.
According to a recent source, a single swarm— with hundreds of billions of locusts — in northeast Kenya was estimated to have covered about 2,400 square kilometres.
It is not just farmers — the locusts’ primary victims — but also everyone in the entire value chain — producers, harvesters, post-harvest workers, transporters and marketers — who are affected.
Unless something is done quickly, millions of farmers and producers along the value chain are vulnerable to livelihood threats.
What is needed?
The most effective method of control are pesticides. There is an increase in the use of bio pesticides as well. These can be sprayed from land, vehicles or aerial spray from airplanes, helicopters or drones.
This method can cover a large area in relatively short spans of time. The FAO is working closely with local and national governments. It also supports surveillance and control operations and initiates efforts to safeguard livelihoods and assist in longer-term recovery and resilience of those affected.
However, there is an urgent need to scale up these intensive ground and aerial control operations, especially to detect and reduce locust numbers.
There is a need to better prepare for these emergencies that could quickly offset all other investments made to agriculture in African countries, especially regions prone to climatic and natural disasters, flood and droughts extremes. These countries are also prone to other transboundary pests and diseases, such as the Fall Armyworm outbreak.
The ASTF remains an effective mechanism for channeling flexible pooled funds that can be deployed rapidly to combat these threats.
There is urgent need for resource partners, donors, private sector and foundations and international development communities to join hands and bring to scale the support to combating the desert locust to avert huge humanitarian catastrophes as costs of inaction.