East Africa is bracing for a third outbreak of desert locusts, with billions of the destructive insects about to hatch and threaten food supplies in a region already reeling from damaging rains and the coronavirus pandemic.
Spurred by favourable weather conditions, the migratory pests have descended on East Africa in record numbers since late 2019 and another wave is about to take to the skies despite the concerted use of pesticides.
“Tens of thousands of hectares of cropland and pasture have already been damaged across the Horn and East Africa,” the International Rescue Committee said in a report earlier in June, noting even a small swarm could devour the same amount of food in a day as 35,000 people.
In Ethiopia between January and April, locusts destroyed 1.3m hectares of grazing land and nearly 200,000ha of crops, resulting in the loss of 350,000 tonnes of cereals, Igad, the East Africa regional organisation, said in a June report.
But these initial estimates — corresponding to the first and second locust waves — do not fully capture the extent of damage as field surveys have been hindered by the coronavirus pandemic.
“Until we get extended figures, I would just say Ethiopia was definitely the most affected in terms of croplands, then Somalia,” Kenneth Kemucie Mwangi from Icpac, Igad’s climate monitoring programme, said.
Somalia, which like Kenya experienced heavy rains and flooding in recent months that left scores dead, had already declared a national emergency against the locust scourge in February.
So far East African neighbours Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi have been spared the insects, which travel in huge swarms billions of insects strong, and can migrate 150km a day.
The World Bank in May approved a $500m (R8.6bn) programme to help countries vulnerable to hunger in East Africa fight the pests eating their way across the region.
Pesticide spraying operations have been under way since February, helping wipe out staggering numbers of the insects capable of multiplying their numbers 20-fold every three months.
“About 400,000ha were controlled in the region between January and mid-May. We estimate that 400bn locusts have been exterminated,” Cyril Ferrand, a Nairobi-based expert with the FAO, said.
“We can’t estimate the total population because we don’t have access to certain areas, especially in Somalia. But we know that it’s been seriously reduced.”
In Kenya, locusts have retreated to just three semi-arid counties in the country’s far north.
Forecasts of dire hunger also did not materialise as the first swarm to arrive from Yemen in 2019 spared the end-of-year harvest, with crops were already too mature.
The insects strip the leaves but not seeds.
“We have not seen signs of a large-scale impact on food security,” Lark Walters of the Famine Early Warning Systems Network, a US-funded food security monitoring organisation, said.
However, that did not mean the impact had not been keenly felt on among vulnerable communities where access to food was fragile and any shocks could cause immense hardship, he said.
East Africa has endured a string of disasters of near-Biblical proportions in 2020 — surging rain and devastating floods, locusts and then amid it all a viral pandemic.
On June 11, credit ratings agency Fitch noted that, while coronavirus was the primary factor affecting growth, “the ongoing desert locust invasion represents significant downside risk to East Africa's macroeconomic stability”.
The looming third wave still lies as eggs beneath the soil, but is predicted to hatch in coming weeks.
“We have concerns for the June-July harvest,” Waters said.
Warmer weather, more rain and wind gusts are expected to direct the insects northwards, deep into the Horn of Africa and as far as Yemen.