East African Locust Crisis Shows how Climate Change Threatens Food Security

January 30, 2020 | 12:02 pm
Njeri Mwangi/Reuters
Rachel Cleetus
Policy Director

Huge swarms of desert locusts are advancing across the Horn of Africa, threatening crops that millions of people depend on for food. UN Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) Director-General Qu Dongyu has called this “a situation of international dimensions that threatens the food security of the entire subregion.” The unprecedented scale of this infestation has been fueled by climate change, which has contributed to ocean conditions favorable for the unusually high number of cyclones (8 in 2019) and extreme rainfall in the region, creating ideal breeding conditions for locusts.

Rapidly spreading crisis across the Horn of Africa

For many, the word ‘locusts’ conjures up images of a biblical plague. And, indeed, these are among the oldest migratory pests in the world. Although they are related to and look like grasshoppers, their behavior is decidedly more devastating when they enter their so-called ‘gregarious’ phase. When food and environmental conditions are favorable, locusts congregate in swarms that can travel hundreds of miles. They are ravenous eaters, capable of decimating pasture and food crops quickly. The desert locust (Schistocerca gregaria) is the most damaging of the species.

While locusts have always existed in the areas affected by the current crisis, the scale and rapid spread of this infestation are exceptional. And with many millions of people in harm’s way, the potential repercussions for food security and livelihoods are grim—which is why the FAO, local governments and humanitarian organizations are sounding the alarm.

This locust crisis has been building for a few months now, dating back to last summer. But it has now reached proportions that have not been seen in over 70 years in Kenya and 25 years in the Horn of Africa. Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia are among the countries worst affected. Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Sudan and Uganda could also face increasing risks if the threat is not quickly contained. Locust swarms have also been a menace in India, Iran, Oman, Pakistan and Yemen.

Map of the current situation of the desert locust infestation, Jan 28 2020.

In Africa, the swarms cover a rapidly growing area. According to the FAO, swarms can move 150 kilometers (about 90 miles) a day, a similar distance as the crow flies between Washington DC and Richmond, VA.

The size of these swarms is hard to comprehend from a distance. An article in the Washington Post noted:

“A single swarm can contain up to 150 million locusts per square kilometer of farmland, an area the size of almost 250 football fields, regional authorities say. One especially large swarm in northeastern Kenya measured 60 kilometers long by 40 kilometers wide (37 miles long by 25 miles wide).” (That is nearly 90% of the land area of Rhode Island!)

Alarmingly, left unchecked, the crisis is likely to grow a lot worse. Rains starting in March are expected to continue to favor rapid breeding of the locusts and could cause their numbers to grow 500 times by June!

How climate change contributed to the locust crisis

While desert locusts are known to affect this area, the conditions being experienced now are exceptional. According to the FAO and the World Meteorological Organization, the heavy rains and devastating cyclones that affected Eastern Africa last fall are major contributing factors. These wet conditions have provided the perfect habitat and food for locusts to thrive.

An ocean circulation pattern called the Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD)—which affects weather from Eastern Africa to Australia—had a “positive” phase in 2019 that was the strongest in 60 years.  Evidence is mounting that strong positive phases of the IOD occur more often with climate change. The strong temperature difference on opposite sides of the Indian Ocean, associated with the positive phase of the IOD, contributed to the conditions leading up to the devastating Australian bushfires and severe rain and flooding in East Africa.

In March and April 2019 Cyclones Idai and Kenneth—which hit within 6 weeks of each other—caused devastating flooding in Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe. Over a thousand people lost their lives. Cyclone Idai ranks as one of the deadliest storms to hit the Southern hemisphere.

The extreme wet weather created conditions that were very favorable for the locusts to reproduce and multiply quickly, including promoting vegetation in normally arid areas for them to feed on. Climate scientists and experts on the ground have emphasized these connections in their comments.

According to Guleid Artan, director of IGAD’s Climate Predictions and Applications Center.

The Desert Locust outbreak was clearly worsened by the unusually heavy rains experienced in the region. This has been a year of extremes and climate anomalies for East Africaa region that hosts some of the most vulnerable populations of the world. 2019 brought us unusual cyclonic activity – 8 cyclones, the highest number in a single year since 1976, forming over the northern Indian Ocean -, droughts, floods and a desert locust outbreak. Our Climate is changing and it is already leading to hundreds of casualties and affecting the livelihoods of millions of people in our region

Nairobi-based climate scientist Abubakr Salih Babiker was quoted in an AP story:

Heavy rains in East Africa made 2019 one of the region’s wettest years on record, said Nairobi-based climate scientist Abubakr Salih Babiker. He blamed rapidly warming waters in the Indian Ocean off Africa’s eastern coast, which also spawned an unusual number of strong tropical cyclones off Africa last year. Heavy rainfall and warmer temperatures are favorable conditions for locust breeding and in this case the conditions have become “exceptional,” he said.

The latest climate change threat to food supplies

Desert locust (Schistocerca gregaria)

The East Africa region already faces high levels of food insecurity, with over 19 million people in Crisis (measured as Phase 3 or above on the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification or IPC scale), according to the October 2019-Januray 2020 outlook from the Famine Early Warning Systems Network.  

And climate change is making things worse.

The 2018 IPCC special report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5C  highlighted the many ways climate change threatens food security. We have already increased average global temperatures by a little over 1 degree Celsius and are witnessing a range of changes around the world in worsening risks of drought, extreme rainfall, flooding, wildfire and destructive storms, all climate extremes that can destroy crops and kill livestock.

This latest locust crisis in East Africa underscores that the threat to people’s food security is here and now. Many of the places in Eastern Africa that are affected by the locust plague—including Ethiopia and Sudan—had been experiencing a prolonged multi-year drought prior to this, which had already placed a severe stress on food security. And now, cascading climate impacts—drought, followed by extreme rain, followed by a plague of locusts—are set to take a devastating toll on regions and people that simply do not have the resources to cope.

What we must do now

The FAO has estimated that there is an immediate urgent need for at least $70 million for Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia to take steps to limit the spread of locusts and to protect people’s livelihoods. Money is desperately needed for rapid assessments of the locust threat as it advances and for aerial spraying to limit the infestation. More will be needed to help those on the ground to rebuild livelihoods and ensure access to adequate food supplies in the months to come. Longer term needs in these countries and others affected must also be addressed.

As the UN has pointed out, there is a narrow window to act to contain the crisis ahead of the next period of rain. Aid must flow quickly. At a briefing today, FAO chief Qu Dong said:

“If after April the money has come, it’s somehow useless. So the timing, location, is crucial.”

USAID, NASA, NOAA and other US agencies have long played an important role in contributing to global early warning systems, monitoring, and ongoing assistance to cope with these kinds of humanitarian crises. Our government must step up to do more now in this hour of crisis.

This is a matter of life and death for millions of people.

Our responsibility to act on climate

The bigger picture challenge is clear: we must act swiftly to limit the harms from further climate change. We must cut our heat-trapping emissions rapidly, in line with what the science shows is necessary. We must invest in climate resilience—both at home and in least developed nations enduring the ravages of climate change.

We, the more affluent nations most responsible for carbon emissions to-date, also bear responsibility for the pain and suffering we are inflicting on people across the world right now—suffering which inevitably falls hardest on those who have the least and live on the edge of subsistence already.

The US has a unique responsibility as a rich nation that is responsible for a leading share of the heat-trapping emissions that are fueling the changes to our climate we see today. And right now, our government is completely failing to do its part—even worse, it is actively trying to undermine global and domestic climate action.

As we lay the groundwork for future climate policy in the US, let’s not forget our international obligations.