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COVID-19 hampers response as ‘perfect storm’ of locusts builds in East Africa

Delays in obtaining pesticides, helicopters, and other vital supplies have set back efforts to combat East Africa’s worst desert locust outbreak in decades. And now a second generation of the pest is forming swarms just as a new crop season gets underway, threatening the livelihoods of millions of people.

The problems began before COVID-19 restrictions took effect. Although donors had pledged or provided most of the $153 million requested by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) to help governments fight the outbreak, supplies purchased by the agency did not start to arrive until mid-March, when a second generation of the ravenous insects was beginning to hatch.

Coronavirus-related travel restrictions have since reduced the number of cargo flights, causing delays in the supply of pesticides and helicopters. Kenya was just four days away from running out of the chemicals altogether earlier this month, while Somalia has been in short supply too.

Though most goods have now arrived, the millions-strong swarms forming and maturing in Kenya, Ethiopia, and Somalia are roughly 20 times the size of the first batch, which were carried in by winds last year from the Arabian Peninsula and bred in huge numbers after unusually heavy rains

While farmers had already harvested most of their crops by the time the first generation emerged, the latest swarms are coming at the start of the planting cycle, and as new seedlings – which locusts prefer over mature crops – begin to sprout.

With a small swarm able to travel up to 150 kilometres in 24 hours and munch through as much food as 35,000 people would eat in a day in the process, the fear is that hunger will soon spread. Some 20 million people are already severely food insecure in the region, and countless more are struggling under COVID-19 lockdowns – not to mention recent droughts and floods.

With a small swarm able to travel up to 150 kilometres in 24 hours and munch through as much food as 35,000 people would eat in a day in the process, the fear is that hunger will soon spread.

Aided by heavy rains, the new swarms will soon lay yet more eggs, which are expected to hatch in May and form a third generation in June and July that will coincide with the start of the mid-year harvest.

“The problem is big and will take a while to control,” said Cyril Ferrand, the FAO’s resilience team leader for Eastern Africa.

Delayed response

Governments have been throwing what they can at the insects, with Uganda mobilising its military and Kenya even turning to youth cadets. But the scale of the outbreak – affecting eight countries across the region – has been difficult to manage. 

Desert locusts have not appeared in East Africa in such numbers for generations, leaving governments scrambling for basic supplies. Spray planes have been unable to fly in parts of Somalia due to the presence of the jihadist group al-Shabab.

The Rome-based FAO has been procuring resources and helping spray the locusts using planes – the most efficient method – as well as teams on the ground, but it took time for funds to become available despite warnings that “rapid action” was required.

Orders for control materials were placed in mid-February, but the agency had to wait – due to normal supply issues not the coronavirus – for at least one month for equipment to arrive, Ferrand said. Some materials are still on their way.

“Two… three weeks earlier [in getting supplies] would have been better, that’s for sure,” Ferrand said.

COVID-19 bottlenecks have been alleviated by diversifying suppliers of key materials, according to Ferrand, while “substantial” pesticide stocks have been built up in affected countries. FAO flying crews stuck in quarantine in Ethiopia should soon be released.

But coronavirus-linked restrictions within countries are still affecting the ability of some NGOs to move around and provide assistance, said Steven Burak, a coordinator for the Regional Desert Locust Alliance and project development manager for the NGO ACTED.

“There are definite impacts on our ability to provide programmes,” said Burak.

Food needs grow

The effects of the first wave on agriculture has varied from country to country: in Somalia, 55 percent of farming land in affected areas was damaged, according to residents surveyed by NGOs; in Ethiopia, around 200,000 hectares of cropland were affected, leaving one million people needing food assistance, according to an assessment.

But Ferrand said the impact of the first wave on food security across the region was limited since crops were mostly harvested before the locusts arrived, and favourable rains resulted in a bumper yield that boosted food stocks.

He added that most of the damage was done to “off-season” crops, which farmers planted after the main harvest to take advantage of continuing rains and moist soil.

“The likelihood is they will need support until the next harvest in November/December, which is quite a long time.”

With the new swarms arriving at the beginning of the current planting cycle, however, many communities will likely have no harvest come June, when food is usually pulled from the ground.

“The likelihood is they will need support until the next harvest in November/December, which is quite a long time,” said Sarah King, a livelihoods and food security advisor at the Norwegian Refugee Council.

While control measures like spraying the locusts have taken precedence so far, King said there is now an urgent need to ramp up food and livelihood assistance for affected people or risk long-term damage.

“The livelihood response needs to start early,” King said.

Damage assessments are currently being conducted by the FAO to pinpoint which areas and communities need support the most, but Ferrand said only half of the roughly $70 million requested by the agency for livelihoods assistance has been funded so far.

“It’s not enough,” he said.

‘Perfect storm’

As the second generation matures and lays eggs, attention will soon turn to the third wave, which experts believe could be up to 400 times the size of the first. The annual “long rains” – normally from March to May – are expected to help them grow.

“The rains are encouraging the eggs to hatch, and then they’ll be able to feed on all this new growth,” said Burak. “It’s creating a perfect storm.”

Asked how long it will take to control the outbreak, Ferrand pointed to a previous invasion in Madagascar that lasted almost two years, and another in West Africa’s Sahel region that went on even longer. 

“I think the ambition of pretending that in two, three months we can control a problem of the magnitude we are facing is not realistic,” he said.

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