Eastern Africa is facing a food crisis after a devastating plague of desert locusts, the worst seen in the region for several generations.
A new wave of insects is already spreading across half a dozen African nations and poised to consume new crops that were planted to replace last season’s losses. Political instability in the region is adding to the misery as violent insurgencies make it difficult to distribute both locally grown and internationally donated food.
As Germany’s Deutsche Welle (DW) noted in a grim report on Wednesday, food shortages threaten to trigger even more violence as battle lines are drawn over livestock and grazing lands.
“There is nothing left to harvest. And there is nothing else that I know how to do. It’s just this farm. That’s where I get food, where I feed my family and friends, all people,” a Kenyan farmer told DW.
Some of the worst locust rampages are occurring in places like Somalia where the ground is soaked in blood from the atrocities of the al-Shabaab terrorist gang, and South Sudan, where a fragile peace coalition could collapse and rekindle a brutal civil war. Drought and political violence combined to unleash famine in South Sudan even before the locusts arrived.
The locusts are a formidable adversary, with swarms capable of traveling over a hundred miles a day and devouring as many crops as thousands of humans. Swarms larger than entire cities have been observed in Africa.
As the locust plague spreads beyond Africa, some are trying to turn the tables by eating the locusts. “Its taste is delicious. If you eat one locust, you will end up wanting to eat five. I walk every day after breakfast to find locusts for dinner. I have become addicted,” a Yemeni told the Jerusalem Post.
Politicians like U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres were quick to link the locust plague to “climate change,” although Deutsche Welle quoted scientists who more cautiously explained the extraordinary number of locusts are a result of climate variations, with swarms of equal and larger size reported long before the beginning of the industrial era:
Climate experts have pointed to unusually heavy rains, aided by a powerful cyclone off Somalia in December, as a major factor in the outbreak. Niklas Hagelberg, senior program coordinator at the UN Environment Programme, told DW that scientific data did not yet directly link the current events with climate change, even if he “personally” believes in the possibility. “What we can say is that the likelihood for increasing rainfall, increasing heat, increasing winds, has gone up due to climate change,” Hagelberg said. “So the likelihood for a swarm like this has increased.”
Spraying with pesticides is an emergency measure. In future, other steps need to be taken to improve the response to similar outbreaks. “I think a key element from a climate change point of view is that we have early warning systems,” Hagelberg said. “Because the system is changing, we need to get early warnings on conditions for the formation of swarms as early as possible, which would make a timely and concerted international reaction possible.”
CNBC on Thursday noted the severe economic damage from the locust plague, such as the destruction of Ethiopia’s vital coffee and tea crops, which make up 30 percent of the country’s exports. The shortage of crops is applying inflationary pressure to economies that can ill afford it and making it harder for governments and corporations in eastern Africa to obtain credit. Some analysts believe the region could lose one or two percent of its GDP growth this year.
Kenya’s economic fate may be decided by exactly where those fast-moving locust swarms decide to go next. As analysts explained to CNBC, the locusts have mostly afflicted northern Kenya, far from where its major export crops are grown, resulting in food insecurity for the local population but relatively little financial damage. If the locusts move further south, the economic forecast will grow considerably more pessimistic, with almost a percentage point of GDP on the line.
U.N. experts worry that the locust population could grow by up to 500 times over the summer and spread to 30 countries. One of those countries is China, which is already dealing with a deadly coronavirus epidemic. Locust swarms have already been sighted along the Chinese border.