In the eye of the swarm: the growing threat of the desert locust

We need a global united response to this infestation that is jeopardising livelihoods and crops

epa08160542 A man chases away a swarm of desert locusts in the bush near Enziu, Kitui County, some 200km east of the capital Nairobi, Kenya, 24 January 2020. Large swarms of desert locusts have been invading Kenya for weeks, after having infested some 70 thousand hectares of land in Somalia which the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has termed the 'worst situation in 25 years' in the Horn of Africa. FAO cautioned that it poses an 'unprecedented threat' to food security and livelihoods in the region.  EPA/DAI KUROKAWA

The first five weeks of 2020 have been a tumultuous time for the wider Middle East. Adding to the long list of the region’s woes is a new threat that has its origins as much in the natural world as the political one. A plague of locusts unlike any seen for decades is jeopardising the bulk of agricultural output of more than a dozen nations spanning from Egypt to India. Although there has been a flurry of press coverage and pleas for assistance from the nations involved, still not enough attention has been devoted to addressing the issue.

Billions of desert locusts have woken from their placid state and flown across two continents, posing a threat so grave as to push two of the countries affected – Pakistan and Somalia – to declare states of emergency. The numbers involved, the UN has warned, are “unprecedented”. If they are not contained, their appetites will trigger famine, destroy livelihoods for local farmers and undermine the food security of a group of countries with a combined population of nearly 2 billion.

Most worryingly, this year's iteration of the locust plague – a phenomenon that has occurred periodically in the history of the Middle East – is not strictly a product of nature. It is also widely suspected to be a consequence of climate change, the responsibility for which lies in large part with human civilisation.

Rising temperatures, rainfall and an increased number of cyclones in the Indian Ocean have provided the perfect breeding ground for locusts to multiply and swarm. Worse, the situation is compounding already-widespread poverty and food insecurity in the Horn of Africa, as well as the ongoing conflict in Yemen – one of the affected nations.

Already plagued by the dysfunction of the Houthi coup, authorities in Sanaa have proven powerless in the face of the locust outbreak, as reported in The National. Since 2014, Houthi rebels have waged war against Yemen’s internationally recognised government, seizing the capital, Sanaa, where the office charged with handling locust invasions is located. The government has set up a new anti-locust centre in the temporary capital of Aden, but all of the necessary equipment is still in Sanaa. In the words of Saleh Al Harouri, deputy manager of the Aden centre, “Our budget is zero. The office here has nothing”. Yemeni farmers – already losing huge swathes of their crop – have called for help in vain.

To say that the locust plague has descended upon multiple countries belies a more fundamental point, which is that it spreads from one to another. This means that a failure by any one country to control an outbreak immediately jeopardises all of its neighbours. The consequences of crippled pest-control institutions in places like Yemen have rippled across the Red Sea into Somalia and onward to at least eight African nations. According to the UN, the current infestation is the largest that Somalia and Ethiopia have witnessed in 25 years, and the biggest in Kenya for the past 70 years. In Somalia, climate change and desertification have already threatened agriculture, which accounts for 60 per cent of gross domestic product. The additional loss of crops to the locusts could leave many more Somalis jobless and hungry.

To say that the locust plague has descended upon multiple countries belies a more fundamental point, which is that it spreads from one to another

The UN predicts that the number of locusts will be multiplied by 500 by this summer if urgent action is not taken. Five of the countries that have been hit hardest by the outbreak rank among the 30 poorest nations of the world. The international community must come together to prevent the destruction of these countries’ harvests and the starvation of their people. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation is continuing its calls for nations to raise at least $70 million in emergency funds to stamp out this year’s infestation. But this should only be a starting point. More must be done in the way of financial assistance and political cooperation, but also on the broader topics of climate change and disaster management. The international community must go above and beyond its past efforts to assist the FAO and the nations affected in ridding the region of this scourge once and for all.