If the difficult litany of this year’s climate change news has you wondering when there will be a plague of locusts next, well, there is – and there’s no joke when it comes to how millions of the voracious, crop-eating pests may affect Ethiopia.
“Urgent control operations are required to manage the situation and protect the livelihood of the population in eastern Ethiopia and possibly the neighboring countries,” says Fatouma Seid, the country representative for the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO). The FAO issued Sunday a new update on the Desert Locust, which is a perennial threat to Horn of Africa and some Gulf nations.
It was the latest warning from FAO this year, as the 2019 locust situation threatens a humanitarian crisis where crops have been destroyed. Dr. Stephen W. Njoka, a Kenyan agricultural expert directing efforts with the Desert Locust Control Organization for East Africa (DLCO-EA), has appealed to all stakeholders to “prevent a disaster from happening” where an estimated 7.8 million people already need food aid.
According to the DLCO-EA, the locusts pose no threat when their numbers are small, but changes in climate-related rainfall patterns – heavy this year – boost Desert Locust breeding. Habitat conditions can lead to various phases of recessions, outbreak or upsurges, known in very high numbers as plagues. This year’s locust swarms follow a well-documented drought in Ethiopia, its second severe drought in less than two years, according to United States agency USAID. That’s proved fatal to people and livestock.
The locusts are making a bad situation worse. A swarm of a half-million locusts, each weighing two grams and eating about their weight, will consume a ton of vegetation every day. That, the DLCO-EA says, is enough to feed about 2,500 people.
In response, Ethiopia’s Ministry of Agriculture said last week it was beginning a spraying campaign in affected states that include Amhara and Somali in the country’s north. It’s there that the Desert Locust, traveling from the Middle East, has swarmed into Ethiopia. They’re eating through 8,700 metric tons of green vegetation every day, FAO said, and hopper bands – young locust populations moving together – have been present in 60 percent of the Ethiopian land surveyed between July and September.
Some 30 million hoppers can land on a one-kilometer square area at one time, leading quickly to a crisis.
The alarm over locusts also prompted Ethiopians to deploy more traditional techniques to try and protect their crops, as well as the pastoral lands and forests that can be laid bare by the insects. The Ethiopian agricultural ministry shared an account from the rural villages of the North Wollo Zone of Amhara, where people are getting up at dawn to chase locusts away with shouts and slingshots. Locals say there have been some successes but at the same time, they’re forming a group of scientific experts to share information.
As they do, the FAO warned that locust breeding – also a serious threat to India and Pakistan – is expected to continue on the Red Sea coast of Yemen, in Saudi Arabia and Eritrea, and extend into Sudan. Now it’s also spreading from Ethiopia too. “Small swarms may arrive in Eritrea and northern Somalia from Ethiopia and continue to southern Ethiopia and northeast Kenya,” the latest update said. “Breeding will cause hopper bands to form in some areas.”
And that means more locusts in places facing critical climate, security and other challenges.