A man walks through a locust swarm in Kenya. © FAO/Sven Torfinn

Locusts Swarm East Africa

Following drought and floods, the insects devour crops, hitting vulnerable families hardest

For months last year, no rain fell - few crops were planted. Families across East Africa did what they could to survive, despite food and water shortages. Then, suddenly, the rains came all at once, in floods that swept away harvests and homes. Communities were displaced. They started to rebuild and replant as best as they could.

Now, these same communities face a third threat: desert locusts.

The oldest and most dangerous migratory pest in the world, desert locusts are insects about the size of an adult hand. Their appetite is voracious – a swarm the size of Los Angeles can eat as much food in a day as the entire population of Kenya. Locusts eat everything green: destroying the crops and pasture that families have been able to plant.

Extreme weather patterns in the Indian Ocean, caused by climate change, worsened drought and floods, and created the perfect conditions for locusts to breed and spread from Yemen to East Africa. According to the latest predictions, the locust infestation in East Africa could drive more than 13 million people deeper into a hunger crisis and increase the risk that more children will die from malnutrition. Even without the locust emergency, East Africa has the highest rate of undernutrition, which impacts 30.8% of the population.

Learao Loroshi, a pastoralist who lives in Ndonyilengala village in Isiolo County, Kenya, describes the desperate situation in his community:

“Conditions were just improving after the prolonged drought that affected us last year. The rains that came between October and January ensured there was enough pasture for our animals…only for the locusts to set in. They came and have cleared all the pasture.

The ground is now bare, and our animals are going to die. We will die too! The eggs that the locusts laid have hatched thousands of young ones which will even affect us more if nothing is done. The droppings from the locusts are also a scare for us as we fear disease outbreaks.”

For Somalia and Ethiopia, this is the worst locust outbreak in 25 years — for Kenya, the worst outbreak in 75 years. Across these three countries, 10 million people already struggling with a severe food crisis now face the loss of crops and pasture. If the swarms continue to breed and spread, another 3.24 million already-hungry people in Uganda and South Sudan could be driven deeper into crisis.

“Before the locusts, aid agencies were already struggling to meet the needs of the people after drought and floods,” says Hajir Maalim, Action Against Hunger’s Regional Director for the Horn and East Africa. “Funding for the humanitarian response is inadequate. While other governments talk about the threat of climate change, countries like Ethiopia, Somalia, and South Sudan are already experiencing its devastating impact on a daily basis.”

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Locusts swarm in a community in southwestern Somalia.

Photo: Action Against Hunger

To scare away the locusts, communities make loud noises, blowing whistles and banging pots. But the most effective way to get rid of the pests – and importantly, to prevent their eggs from hatching – is through ground and aerial pesticide spraying. In Kenya, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization and the Ministry of Agriculture are carrying out these measures. But in Somalia, conflict and insecurity make aerial spraying nearly impossible. On February 2, the government of Somalia declared a national emergency, which means the situation has overwhelmed its capacity to respond.

Even with spraying, the damage has already been done in many vulnerable communities: “[The locusts] cleared all the vegetation before they were sprayed. Now we have the young ones or hoppers that are eating the remaining vegetation, and they are very vicious,” says Henry Sangale, a community leader in Isiolo County, Kenya, one of the areas where Action Against Hunger works. “This [will] totally affect the grazing land and can easily lead to conflict and insecurity with communities around us, as each will start fighting for pasture for our animals.”

To address the crisis, Action Against Hunger is providing immediate relief for families suffering from hunger. Our teams are preventing malnutrition, expanding our cash assistance programs, pre-positioning supplies for the next rainy season, and working with governments to build capacity to handle an increase in cases of malnutrition.

“Again and again, these communities have been hit by multiple, simultaneous crises: drought, floods, epidemics, and now locusts,” says Ahmed Khalif, Action Against Hunger’s Country Director for Somalia. “But I do see reasons for hope. If you look back to 2011, 2012, most of these populations could not access aid – people used to have to travel 50 miles to reach assistance. Today, thanks to our mobile teams and the trust that communities have in us, we are able to quickly provide what people urgently need, even in hard-to-reach areas.”

Together with local authorities and organizations like FAO, Action Against Hunger is watching for signs that even greater hunger may be coming. Our teams in East Africa monitor access to markets, water availability for people and animals, increased cases of diarrhea and other signs of water-borne diseases, and admission rates into our community-based nutrition programs.  

Locusts swarm in a community in southwestern Somalia.

The effects of the locust infestation may not be truly felt for months, when the crops they have consumed would have been harvested and families face food shortages. Action Against Hunger, the governments of affected countries, and other partners need an injection of funds to address the immediate and long-term needs of communities – and soon:

“Early action saves lives and costs less,” says Maalim. “Action Against Hunger has worked in these communities for decades and we know what works. If rapid action is not taken now to deal with this locust infestation, we are likely to face an even more catastrophic situation in the coming months.”

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