Worst Locust Plague in 25 Years Threatens the Horn of Africa

One might be excused for beginning to think it is the end of the world, with the number of earthquakes we have experienced this past year, the number of signs in the heavens and now one of the largest locusts swarms in a quarter century plaguing Africa, but plagues of locusts in Africa and the Mideast have occurred for centuries.

The latest outbreak, which began in 2019 and is affecting the Horn of Africa, Southwest Asia and the Red Sea, is the worst of its kind in 25 years for Ethiopia and Somalia—and the worst Kenya has seen for 70 years. The locusts have appeared in the East African countries of Kenya, Somalia, and Ethiopia in huge numbers, with some swarms larger than cities.

The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimated one swarm in Kenya at about 930 square miles, an area almost the size of Moscow, and is said to perhaps contain up to 200 billion locusts, each of which consumes its own weight in food every day.

It is feared that locust numbers could grow 500 times this amount by June, spreading to Uganda and South Sudan, becoming a plague that will devastate crops and pasture in a region that is already poor and experiencing food shortages.

The Desert Locusts, or Schistocerca gregaria, are notoriously difficult to control as they often occur in remote areas and can travel up to 90 miles in one day. The locusts threaten to destroy pastures and crops and even a small swarm can consume enough food for 35,000 people in a single day.

Desert locusts swarm across a highway at Lerata village, near Archers Post in Samburu County, approximately 186 miles north of Nairobi on January 22, 2020. Photo credit: Tony Karumba/ Getty Images.

Scientists say that last year was one of the wettest years ever in East Africa and that warm temperatures and heavy rainfall are to blame for creating the perfect environment for an outbreak.

Nairobi-based climate scientist Abubakr Salih Babiker agrees, saying heavy rains in East Africa made 2019 one of the wettest years on record. Warm waters in the Indian Ocean off Africa’s eastern coast were also responsible for an unusual number of tropical cyclones in the area. All favorable conditions for locusts to breed.

“Heavy rainfall and warmer temperatures are favorable conditions for locust breeding and in this case the conditions have become exceptional,” he said.

Some swarms have already migrated to Iran. Egypt, Eritrea, Saudi Arabia and Yemen are also at risk of similar swarms. According to a U.N. Food and Agriculture press release, “The speed of the pest’s spread and the size of the infestations are so far beyond the norm that they have stretched the capacities of local and national authorities. Given the scale of the current swarms, aerial control is the only effective means to reduce the locust numbers.”

The problem is that many African governments affected by the swarms are ill equipped to deal with an aerial attack, lacking funds, knowledge and equipment. The crises has prompted the UN Emergency Fund to release $10 million to respond to aerial measures to manage the plague.

The UN’s Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock said, “If left unchecked, this outbreak has the potential to spill over into more countries in East Africa with horrendous consequences. A swift and determined response to contain it is essential. This allocation from the UN Central Emergency Response Fund will fund a massive scale-up in aerial operations to manage the outbreak.”

In 1931, a swarm of grasshoppers, cousins to locusts, descended on crops throughout the American heartland, devastating millions of acres in Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota. The July 1931 swarm was said to be so thick that it blocked out the sun and one could shovel the grasshoppers with a scoop. Cornstalks were eaten to the ground and fields left completely bare.

Plagues such as this recent one in the Middle East and Africa only serve to remind us of the fragility of human life. Regardless of how technologically advanced we become, we can’t eat artificial intelligence and we are all at the mercy of nature. It also serves to remind us that we are our brother’s keeper in times of great tragedy and we must do all we can to provide humanitarian aid. #Reignwell

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