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10th Dec 2022

Feature

The other crisis: Locusts imperil millions in Africa

  • Desert locusts come to east Africa from the Arabian Peninsula (Photo: FAO/Sven Torfin)

The idea that a butterfly flapping its wings can cause a hurricane on the other side of the globe is a commonplace of so-called 'chaos theory' in physics.

But theory aside, individual consumers making tiny, everyday choices in the industrialised north have helped set flapping the wings of hurricanes of locusts in east Africa.

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  • UN staff still out spraying locust breeding grounds, despite the coronavirus pandemic (Photo: FAO/Isak Amin)

"The situation is particularly worrisome in Ethiopia, Somalia, and Kenya," Cyril Ferrand, a senior UN official based in the region, told EUobserver.

"About one million individuals in Ethiopia have been affected by the desert locust upsurge and require emergency food assistance," he said.

"Around 20 million people were already experiencing acute food insecurity in the ... greater Horn of Africa," he added.

Ferrand's agency, the Rome-based Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), is spraying locust-breeding grounds with pesticide and monitoring swarm behaviour, as well as helping herdsmen, some of whose pastures have already been devastated, to buy food.

UN staff can work despite the coronavirus pandemic because they have protective equipment.

But they are also working because the UN has classified the locust threat as a "Level 3" humanitarian emergency - the same level as the coronavirus pandemic, or as the Syria or Yemen wars.

Right-wing EU politicians tend to invoke the bogeyman of migration to Europe when there is a new crisis in Africa.

But for Ferrand's agency, a more urgent worry is ruined shepherds and farmers migrating to African cities in search of casual labour in what the UN official called "an exacerbating factor for food insecurity and a potential source of tension between people and communities".

Meanwhile, the idea that rich societies, who luxuriate in CO2-heavy lifestyles, are to blame for the locust crisis might seem fanciful at first glance.

But Europe, China, and the US together emit over 20bn tonnes a year of CO2, compared to less than half a billion in east Africa.

And their carbon is causing the climate change that is causing the extraordinary heat and rain that is creating the locust effect.

EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell made a similar point on the coronavirus pandemic, while speaking to MEPs last week.

"This pandemic did not come about because someone somewhere ate a wild animal, it shows the wider misfunctioning of the ecosystem," he said, referring to suspicion that the virus arose in an animal market in China.

"This should be a big warning to us about how we interact with nature," Borrell said.

"As the sun comes up, you will see them [the locusts], all turning their bodies to the direction of the sun to get warm and when the wind starts blowing, when they are warm enough to open their wings, they let themselves be carried off by the wind and they go wherever the wind goes," Lydia Limbe, an FAO official in Nairobi, also told EUobserver.

The swarms, which are pink and yellow, can travel at 200 kilometres a day.

They multiply 20-fold each generation and can get so big they blot out the sun, she said.

"They were like clouds. You could see the sky, but it was spotted everywhere," Limbe said, recalling a recent field trip.

The wind normally brought what she called "immigrant locusts" from the 'Empty Quarter', a swathe of desert in the Arabian Peninsula, where they first hatch, via Oman and Yemen, over the Red Sea, and to Ethiopia and Somalia, each year.

But for the first time in 70 years, it has brought them in vast numbers as far as northern Kenya, where they have started to breed locally, Limbe said.

"This is the first time we are seeing it on this magnitude," she said.

"People here are Christian, so they see it in Biblical terms, like a drought or famine, and some are starting to panic," she added.

The FAO is still collecting data on how climate change impacts locust outbreaks.

But "desert locusts love to lay their eggs in hot, moist, and sandy soil," Limba noted.

The last five years in the region have been hotter than ever, but at the same time rainfall in the Horn of Africa was 400 percent more than normal in October to December last year.

Rains in recent years in the Arabian Peninsula's Empty Quarter were also unusual.

"These abnormal rains were caused by the Indian Ocean 'dipole', a phenomenon accentuated by climate change," the FAO's Ferrand said.

"When plentiful rain falls and annual green vegetation develops, desert locusts can increase rapidly in number and, within a month or two, start to concentrate and become gregarious, leading to the formation of swarms," he said.

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