The focus of 2020 so far has been the global COVID-19 international pandemic, especially as talks of a second wave are increasing. However, a larger and arguably more worrying crisis is occurring in South Asia, East Africa and the Middle East: the Locust Crisis.
Locusts are a type of grasshopper that live for several months, either individually (like some other species of grasshopper) or within swarms. However, the problems associated with their large and varied diet have been observed and documented for millennia, such as the damaging effects on crops like the Plagues of Egypt.
Locusts also have the potential to spread over incredibly large distances. They regularly fly across the Red Sea and Saudi Arabian Peninsula, but have the potential to fly even further. During population surges they can be found in Western Spain, but during the 1988 population surge they were found to have travelled from North West Africa to the South of America and the Caribbean.
The question is, what makes this year’s locusts different? Though biologically they remain the same, Cyclone Mekunu in 2018 led to an 8000-fold increase in the number of locusts, instead of the expected 400-fold increase. Locusts typically breed within very moist environments. Therefore, the increased rainfall as a result of the cyclone created an optimum environment for the locusts to breed at an advanced rate, leading to the large swarms first seen in Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Oman. Furthermore, the locust population control by agricultural officials in Yemen was virtually impossible due to the current ongoing conflict. The locusts then moved to the Horn of Africa in late 2019 when an unseasonal cyclone descended upon Somalia, resulting in the worst locust infestation seen in 25 years. As of January 2020, the crisis continued to affect Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, Kenya, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Egypt, Oman, Iran, India and Pakistan. However, since January South American nations (such as Paraguay) have also been subject to locust swarms.
Figure 1 Locust Watch (Credit: Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations)
Since June 2019, these locusts have been consuming up to their body weight in food a day. For reference, a small swarm (80 million locusts/half a square mile) can consume the same amount of food 35000 people would eat in one day. A desert swarm of locusts can be 460 square miles large and contain up to 80 million locusts in half a square mile. Therefore, the swarms that are currently active threaten the food security of up to 42 million people according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN.
Individual nations and international bodies are currently acting to mitigate the damages caused by the Locust Crisis. At the time of writing this article, the World Bank has approved a $500 million program to provide financial relief to nations impacted by the locust outbreak, as well as providing increased food security in the wake of crop destruction. In addition to this, the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation has been working with multiple countries to coordinate the strategic and pre-emptive use of pesticides, so as to prevent the locusts from spreading further. However, the locusts have unfortunately been an addition to problems already affecting global food security. In particular, lockdowns to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 disrupted the supply chains of all goods, thus reducing access to supplies of food and pesticides, so that as of March 2020, the fight against locusts has been slowed down significantly. Moreover, the summer breeding period has also placed a question mark over when the locust population will be fully controlled.
Though the COVID-19 pandemic has deservedly dominated the discussions and media coverage of 2020, crises elsewhere must not be ignored. Those suffering from the impact of the Locust Crisis will almost certainly need greater support against COVID-19 because of the disruption to their supplies, especially food.