Urgent Actions Are Needed to Fight the Desert Locusts’ Outbreak

Billions of locusts sweeping across the East African regions, this will harm the crops and affect so many people. International community should be aware of this kind of issue that requires all kinds of effort.

What can easily be described as a “dense apocalyptic cloud” in a fictional story, has turned into a reality in the form of desert locusts in several regions across the globe. The gigantic swarms containing billions of insects have been wreaking havoc by feasting on the crops grown by farmers since last year in the East African regions (Ethiopia, Somalia, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, South Sudan), areas near the Red Sea (Egypt, Sudan, Djibouti, Eritrea, Saudi Arabia, Yemen), and Southwest Asia (Iran, Pakistan’s Punjab province and bordering India’s Rajasthan). Reportedly, this infestation is said to be the most severe in 25 years in Ethiopia and Somalia, most dreadful in 70 years in Kenya, and most destructive in almost two decades in India and Pakistan.

As per estimate by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), a swarm in Kenya is around 2400 square kilometers (nearly 930 miles), the area equivalent to the size of Moscow, and contains almost 200 billion locusts. Generally, each insect consumes approximately two grams of food in a single day (the size similar to its body mass). As per Keith Cressman, a senior locust forecaster for FAO, in the current scenario, the swarms in Kenya can eat up the food of almost 85 million people in a single day. With billions of insects feasting in these regions, the amount of damage is humongous, impacting the livelihood of millions of farmworkers. This could also pose an extraordinary threat to the food security of the people if remained unchecked.

What causes this massive disaster?

According to UN experts, this explosion of an enormous population of locusts can be partially attributed to global warming. The increasing temperature of the Indian Ocean caused a significant shift in the weather conditions in the deserts of Saudi Arabia’s southern border alongside Yemen and Oman. This region, which is called the “Empty Quarter” because of its harsh and inhospitable climate for humans, thus became susceptible to two significant cyclones: Mekunu and Luban in May 2018 and October 2018, respectively. As a result, the weather in this area became wet and humid for an extended period, forming the perfect conditions for locusts to breed.

As per FAO, the frequent cyclones in the region are the result of Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD). IOD is an ocean temperature gradient that affects the climate of Australia and other nations surrounding the Indian Ocean Basin. It swings from positive to negative and neutral state depending upon the temperature fluctuation across the Indian Ocean. The negative IOD gives rise to westerly winds and pushes the warm water close to Australia while causing torrential rainfall to its southern part. The positive IOD, on the other hand, weakens the westerly winds, allowing the warm water and rain to shift towards Eastern Africa.

This unusual phenomenon not only fueled the devastating bushfires of Australia but also allowed a bunch of insects to transform into huge swarms along the Horn of Africa. Notably, the lifespan of a desert locust is three months. After a generation reaches its maturity, the adult locusts lay their eggs. These eggs, when receiving favorable conditions, could hatch and form a new population, almost 20 times larger than that of the size of its previous generation. Usually, the breeding grounds of locusts are tracked by the FAO officials with the help of satellite images and advanced tracking technologies. The insects are then controlled even before they start to fly. However, in 2018, the breeding took place in one of the remotest areas where the hungry insects managed to go untraceable. By the time these swarms were tracked, it was already a nine-month period, and the locusts had already reproduced up to three generations, forming a swarm, almost 8000 times larger than their original population.

What we should be aware of

This huge population of insects took flight in the spring of 2019 and, on the way, formed two different groups. One group headed north towards Saudi Arabia and Iran, while the other flew towards Sudan and Eritrea. Since then, the groups of locusts have proliferated in several countries, plaguing miles and miles of farmlands, endangering the food supply, and triggering economic losses to farmers. So far, more than ten countries have been affected by this horrendous storm. Additionally, the officials have warned that under the current weather conditions, this population of locusts could increase to almost 500 times by June this year. Already, the insects are breeding in eight different countries, as per the UN reports.

Moreover, the climate scientists have warned that with the increase in the Earth’s temperature, the phenomenon of positive IOD could increase by three times by the end of the century. This increase in the positive IOD might trigger a massive locusts’ outbreak again in the future, thereby continuing to be a cause of concern for the global community.

Last month, the FAO called the international community’s support for raising US$76 million to conduct pest control operations and protecting farmers in the swarms affected regions. While the farmers continue to battle against these ravenous insects, the worries of locusts’ population multiplying and adequacy of the amount to tackle the issue still linger. The UN Secretary-General, António Guterres on the sidelines of the 36th Ordinary Session of the Executive Council of the African Union, early this month, had stated, “The UN has issued an urgent appeal for assistance. I ask the international community to respond with speed and generosity to ensure an effective response and control the infestation while we still have the chance.”

Situation control require joint action

Fortunately, many countries have maintained communication and coordination in an effort to counter the infestation of desert locusts. Despite tensions along the border in Kashmir region, India and Pakistan have been keeping communication on the common threat of locusts. As early as in December of 2019, members of the Locust Control board from both India and Pakistan had met to discuss the potential threat. At that time, the UN had warned that giant swarms of locusts after devastating East Africa might descend upon both sides of the India-Pakistan border around spring-summer this year. So far, despite Pakistan announcing an emergency citing the locusts’ outbreak, the situation is still manageable.

However, not all nations are as equipped in dealing with this threat. The international community should, therefore, respond earlier to help African countries, as many of those regions lack means for effective pest control. It is also highly likely that without foreign aid, their agriculture systems, which are already fragile, could collapse in the face of this immense challenge.

Thus, by looking at the current situation, it seems necessary for the international community to ponder on controlling the continuous rise in the ocean’s temperature to avoid the future possibilities of such humongous locusts’ outbreak. Also, this upsurge in the number of feasting locusts is not just region-specific but rather global and if remains unchecked, could cause a severe threat to food security worldwide. Therefore, all the nations must act as one big family and take resolute steps to curb this invasion as soon as possible.

Although the man-made borders can divide two countries, they cannot block disasters. These severe locusts’ attacks by causing damage to several countries across the globe had once again reminded us of this lesson.

The author is an active blogger, poet and freelance content writer. She is also the author of the book “To The Horizon We Indeed Sail”.

Editor: Bai shi, Dong Lingyi