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Devastating Locust Swarms Tied to Climate Change

Devastating locust swarms in East Africa are being linked to climate change-driven cyclones, while response to the crisis is being stymied and the threat of food insecurity grows. 

Arriving in Somalia and Ethiopia last year after crossing the Gulf of Aden, the insect pests “were spotted in Kenya about two months ago in what has become the worst infestation there in 70 years,” reports U.S. National Public Radio. The United Nations has called the situation a “looming catastrophe” in a region already facing deep food insecurity. 

Keith Cressman, senior locust forecasting officer at the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, told NPR that “a swarm the size of Manhattan can, in a single day, eat the same amount of food as everyone in New York and California combined.”

Citing Save the Children, NPR reports that “swarms of desert locusts more than three times the size of New York City—an estimated 192 billion insects—have been spotted in northeast Kenya.”

The current plague owes to a disastrous triple header of cyclone activity between mid-2018 and early December 2019. Pounded by “extraordinary rains” in June 2018, the typically arid Empty Quarter of Saudi Arabia was the nursery for the current locust outbreak, with a second cyclone in late 2018 ensuring that the typical die-off of insects there did not happen. The consequently huge population of winged ravagers (in the right conditions, a locust population “could multiply by 400 times every six months,” said Cressman), then began to migrate, first north and west and eventually across the gulf and into East Africa.

A third cyclone hitting semi-arid Ethiopia and Somalia in early December 2019 further bolstered locust populations.

The increase in cyclone activity is tied to climate change, Cressman said. And “if this trend continues, if there’s an increased frequency of cyclones in the Indian Ocean, it’s quite obvious that there will be an increased frequency of desert locust outbreaks and upsurges like the one we’re seeing now in the Horn of Africa.”

He added that direct, comprehensive aerial spraying is the way to break the locusts’ breeding cycle. But while experts know what to do, “efforts have been stymied by a lack of resources, and because it’s difficult to spray in conflict-racked places such as Somalia and Yemen,” NPR states.

So far, the international response to East Africa’s plight has been woefully inadequate. Of the US$76 million requested by the Food and Agricultural Organization in January, the U.S. public broadcaster says less than a third had been pledged or donated by late February.

And with locusts actively breeding in Kenya, a further 20-fold increase in populations could occur there through March, wreaking havoc on farmers during planting season. If control efforts fail, writes NPR, “swarms of desert locusts are likely to re-invade Ethiopia and Somalia,” with yet another generation returning just in time for Kenya’s harvest season.