29 September 2020

The Humanitarian Impact of Locusts Plagues

The Institut Européen d'Administration des Affaires – INSEAD, a UNAI member institution, through its Humanitarian Research Group, which aims to encourage the science of development and relief operations through impactful practice-based research in line with the Sustainable Development Goals, presented the outcome of a research project conducted by Luk N. Van Wassenhove, its Academic Director, and Gina Fialka, Research Associate, on the impact of locust plagues in vulnerable regions.

They noted that the report Weather and Desert Locusts issued by the World Meteorological Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, warns of millions of desert locusts swarming across the Horn of Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, threatening the livelihood of a tenth of humankind. A combination of events in the last two years has created a complex situation in regions plagued by other crises such as armed conflict, internal displacement, refugees, healthcare crises and food insecurity and in need of humanitarian aid long before the locusts or the COVID-19 pandemic came to those areas.

Now the danger of locusts lies in the swarms. These swarms form when locusts come together due to food scarcity and they can breed without interruption; climate change contributes to both conditions that make swarms possible. The Greater Horn of Africa has had multiple extreme droughts over the past 25 years, wiping out crops and livestock and contributing to food insecurity.

For desert locusts, drought means fewer places to eat causing them to gather in greener areas where there are crops. Cyclones in the Arabian Peninsula created the ideal breeding ground for locusts, most of which was concentrated in Yemen where there is an ongoing humanitarian crisis, making survey and control operations impossible. Despite the efforts of the FAO Locust Watch and local organizations, a combination of variables allowed for uninterrupted locust breeding.

For an outbreak to become an upsurge, rainfall in adjacent areas is required and unusually heavy rains in surrounding areas caused the locusts to spread. Landing in countries that have been facing multiple threats, from heavy rainfall to drought, cyclones and armed conflict, destroying the already weak infrastructure and hampering movement for disaster response and locust control. Because swarms of locusts can travel up to 150km a day, locust control requires cross-border coordination, which has proved challenging.

The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the problem as restrictions on movement hampered the work of experts and scientists and assistance from humanitarian agencies, either because of travel restrictions on the ground or an inability to ship supplies across borders. The pandemic also disrupted supply chains, causing a decline in pesticide production and delivery. Moreover, border closures restrict access to helicopters, crucial for locust surveillance and control. As Cyril Ferrand, FAO’s Head of Resilience for Eastern Africa, said “We need to have mobility that is equivalent to the desert locusts.”

For most of the affected countries, COVID-19 and locusts are added challenges to the ones they already face. If locusts are not eliminated, the worst may be yet to come next year, as food insecurity is becoming more critical by the day and a new generation of locusts takes flight during harvest season, a harvest that for several years has been meagre because of the effects of climate change.

The Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) has warned that the locust plague will likely spread throughout several countries in North Africa and elsewhere, while the number of COVID-19 cases increases, and the food security situation worsens every day. This locust story illustrates how global interconnectedness can easily lead to a cascade of events with knock-on effects, ending in what could be called a perfect storm. More research is needed as well as adequate budgets and financial resources, and above all, willingness to act collectively to address this humanitarian situation.

For further information you may read the document issued by the FAO entitled Desert locust crisis appeal: January-December 2020.