A swarm of desert locusts in Kenya.

Q&A: The Impact of Desert Locusts in the Horn and Eastern Africa

In the Horn and East Africa, the COVID-19 pandemic is not the only crisis communities face. Flash flooding has taken lives, destroyed homes and livelihoods. Conflict continues to displace families and prevent them from accessing aid. Rift Valley fever threatens the livelihoods of communities dependent on agriculture and pastoralism. In some countries, economic shocks and currency depreciation contribute to growing food insecurity. And, throughout the region, communities are battling huge, hungry swarms of desert locusts – the likes of which have not been since for generations. 

What are desert locusts? Where did they come from?

Desert locusts are insects in the grasshopper family about the size of an adult hand. A single swarm can have billions of insects, and span miles of land. In Kenya, for example, there have been reports of a swarm covering 925 square miles.

With help from the winds, desert locusts can quickly travel long distances – sometimes moving more than 90 miles in a single day. The swarms currently in Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia originally came from Yemen, and some have now travelled back to the Middle East and beyond.

Map courtesy of FAO, July 21, 2020.

Why are the locust swarms so large this year?

In 2018 and 2019, frequent and intense storms in and around the Indian Ocean caused deadly flooding in the Middle East and the Horn of Africa. These extreme weather events – exacerbated by climate change – helped to create the perfect breeding conditions for the oldest and most dangerous migratory pest in the world.

For Somalia and Ethiopia, this is the worst locust outbreak in 25 years — for Kenya, the worst outbreak in 75 years.

How will desert locusts impact hunger?

According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), 20.2 million people currently face severe acute food insecurity in Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, South Sudan, Uganda and Tanzania – a number that could grow exponentially due to the combined impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and the desert locust infestation.

Desert locusts eat everything green and destroy crops and pasture that farming and herding families depend on. 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. During plague periods, according to FAO, desert locusts can “affect 20% of the Earth's land, more than 65 of the world's poorest countries, and potentially damage the livelihoods of one tenth of the world's population.”

In Ethiopia alone, early assessments showed that desert locusts have caused the destruction of nearly 800 square miles of cropland and more than 5,000 square miles of pasturelands, as well as the loss of more than 350,000 metric tons of cereal – resulting in 1 million people in need of food aid. The World Bank estimates that locust-related losses, including damage to crops, livestock, and other assets, could add up to as much as $8.5 billion for the East Africa region and Yemen.

A swarm of locusts in Kenya.

Photo © FAO / Sven Torfinn

How do you prevent the spread of the locusts? How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted the efforts to contain them?

Communities in East Africa face multiple threats: desert locusts, COVID-19, conflicts, floods, pests and disease. Just this week, more than 105,000 people were affected by heavy rains and flash floods in Somalia. Combined together, these crises are displacing families and driving more of the most vulnerable people into poverty and hunger.

To combat the desert locusts, FAO works with local and national governments to spray pesticides both on the ground and aerially where it is safe to do so. The travel restrictions and lockdowns put in place to stop the spread of COVID-19 delayed supplies and spraying, but FAO has still managed to put locust control measures in place across more than 1,400 square miles of land in 10 countries. According to their preliminary assessments, they project that these efforts have saved 720,000 tons of cereal – enough to feed nearly five million people for a year.

However, with desert locusts in the midst of their second breeding cycle, there is still much work to be done to rid communities across East Africa, the Middle East, and beyond from these pests and to support to livelihood recovery among the vulnerable populations.

What is Action Against Hunger doing to help communities?

With help from our supporters, the private sector, and other donors, Action Against Hunger provides immediate relief for families suffering from hunger – including helping them deal with the impacts of the locusts, COVID-19, and other crises they face in addition to treating malnutrition.

Recently, our teams launched a desert locust response in the Oromia region of Ethiopia targeting 586 families for five months to meet immediate food needs as desert locusts had damaged their crops and pasture land. In Somalia, we addressed the effects of desert locusts and COVID-19 disruptions through provision of unconditional cash transfers to 5,402 families in the Hudur and Elbarde districts. 

We’re also helping farmers and fishermen with trainings, agricultural and fishing inputs, supporting women to save and earn more income through savings and loans groups, and helping chronically food insecure people to maintain their livelihoods with cash-for-work and cash-for-assets projects. 

For Action. Against Hunger.

We save the lives of children and their families. We will never give up. Until the world is free from hunger.