Compounding Crises: Locusts and COVID-19
Swarms of desert locusts fly up into the air from crops in Katitika village, Kitui county, Kenya Friday, Jan. 24, 2020. Desert locusts have swarmed into Kenya by the hundreds of millions from Somalia and Ethiopia, countries that haven't seen such numbers in a quarter-century, destroying farmland and threatening an already vulnerable region. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis)

Compounding Crises: Locusts and COVID-19

COVID, CLIMATE and FOOD Series

The second swarm of locusts has been descending on East Africa and putting the food security of millions of people at risk. East Africa has been dealing with locust outbreaks since earlier this year and they are causing major food security issues as they devour hectare after hectare of food crops and rangeland. A locust can eat its weight in food each day (BBC) and a one square kilometer swarm can eat the same amount of food as 35,000 people (FAO).

The locust crisis will further decrease food production in a region where millions of people are already considered food insecure. East Africa is home to cattle and other livestock whose grazing land is also threatened by the locusts. Pastoralists in Sudan, Ethiopia, and Kenya will be hit the hardest by livestock-related impacts which are expected to cost $8.5bn in damages by the end of the year (Guardian). Compounded with the food availability issues caused by the COVID-19 pandemic (i.e. trade restrictions, supply chain disruptions) and extreme weather events such as flooding, this region is dealing with multiple threats to its food supply. While the locusts arrived before the pandemic, due to coronavirus restrictions, supplies to battle the locust outbreak didn’t arrive until the middle of March, when a second wave of locusts began to hatch (The New Humanitarian).

How does climate change impact locust outbreaks?

There has been a lot of research as to why this current outbreak has been so devastating to crops. Some reports have pointed to climate change as a major factor in the growth of this locust outbreak with the primary argument being that climate change has altered the Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD) making places like Australia drier (and more prone to wildfires) and East Africa wetter (and more prone to pests like locusts). Experts say that one key factor in the recent swarms of locusts is the unusually wet weather over the past 18 months in East Africa (National Geographic). Heavy rains in March 2020 have also been blamed for the second wave of locusts which helped establish “favourable breeding conditions for yet another generation of locusts in the Horn of Africa. These will emerge as young swarms in June, just as many farmers start to harvest,” said Antonio Querido, FAO Uganda (Guardian). The map below of aWhere’s weather data confirms the wetter than normal conditions (blue) in March across East Africa.

Where are the locusts heading next?

East Africa and parts of Asia have been feeling the impacts of the locusts but there are signs that the swarms are heading west across the Sahel which could bring additional uncertainty to an already fragile region. As the COVID-19 outbreak accelerates across Africa, 43 million people in West Africa will likely be in urgent need of food assistance (Guardian). This region is already facing threats of conflict, climate change and the pandemic – an outbreak of locusts could push millions into vulnerable positions. The FAO’s latest Locust Watch shows the possibility of the swarms moving into West Africa and threatening Middle Eastern countries again as well.

The risk of the locust spread into parts of West Africa is currently low but this can change very quickly based on the weather patterns such as rainfall and wind; the former providing greenery for the locusts to eat and the latter helping move them into new regions (FAO Desert Locust Situation Report). Iran is at a higher threat level and has enlisted its military to help fight the pest that will devour billions of dollars worth of crops in the country.

Investments and planning must be scaled to prepare for and react to this threat. aWhere’s localized weather data can provide insight into where the locusts could migrate based on the rainfall patterns across Africa and the Middle East. The severity of future desert locust swarms could be anticipated. aWhere’s weather data can generate insights to support planning to manage pest outbreaks or plan infrastructure in Africa to deliver economic resilience to climate change.

Food Security Tracker

As part of the COVID, CLIMATE and FOOD series, we will provide an updated Global Food Security Tracker which shows the forecast of precipitation over potential evapotranspiration (P/PET) across aWhere’s 1.9 million virtual weather stations. Southeast Asia, parts of South America, the Midwest and Southern parts of the United States, and parts of Africa and Europe will experience drier than normal conditions next week.



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