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The locust swarms which continue to plague East Africa show how climate change can aggravate human conflict, which in turn makes formulating a response to natural disasters even harder.  

East Africa continues to face an unparalleled threat to its food and human security from the continued breeding cycles of desert locusts. New swarms will begin to form in June and July, spreading from Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia across the Horn of Africa and over to the Arabian Peninsula, India, Pakistan and Turkey. 

The East Africa Locust Plague

The East African locust swarms expose the interactive relationship between the climate crisis and armed conflicts. The exceptionally large locust numbers are a product of extreme climatic conditions with cyclones on the Arabian Peninsula in 2018 and huge rainfalls in East Africa in 2019 providing the ideal breeding grounds – damp soil and growing vegetation – for desert locusts. One swarm in Kenya covered 2,400km2 – three times the size of New York City – while typical swarms cover around 100km2. These weather events are likely a result of temperature fluctuations in the Indian Ocean. 

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With climate change the primary cause of the locust swarms, human conflict acts as an exacerbating factor. A key method of controlling the growth of locust populations is spraying them with pesticide before they have hatched, a process which was severely hindered by conflict in Yemen and Somalia. The sprays themselves could also be detrimental to local ecosystems. One Kenyan expert suggests that the mass use of pesticides may ‘kill “useful” insects, such as bees and beetles’. 

Yemen is an important area for the desert locust, with breeding grounds near the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden. Prior to the outbreak of civil war in 2015, Yemen had a well-developed infrastructure for dealing with locusts. But the conflict has severely damaged this infrastructure and made it difficult to administer locust control measures. Key equipment like four-wheel drive vehicles have been destroyed or stolen – making monitoring very difficult – and funding for spraying programmes has been decimated. In addition, large portions of the country are controlled not by the government but by Houthi rebels. This makes a coordinated response to locust breeding zones impossible.

From Yemen, the locusts quickly spread to Somalia. Significant areas for locust breeding in the country are not controlled by the Somali government. The semi-autonomous region of Puntland is administered by Al-Shabaab, an armed group who oppose the Somali government. Aid groups and the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation have had to negotiate access to Al-Shabaab controlled areas to conduct locust spraying operations, reducing the speed and effectiveness of these operations. 

Impacts of Locust Swarms

The locust swarms are likely to have a multiplier effect on food insecurity and conflict conditions in East Africa. The region has been severely affected by extreme climatic shifts, of which the locusts are the latest manifestation. Huge floods have already damaged the March to May crop season and the locusts will likely hinder the beginning of harvesting in July and August. In 2019, the food security of over 27 million people in East Africa was considered to be in ‘crisis’. Considering that a small swarm of locusts can eat the equivalent of 35 000 people in one day, the food insecurity situation is likely to deteriorate further. 

The devastation of pasture lands used to grow crops and provide grazing land for animals could spark conflicts between farming and pastoralist groups. Tensions between Pokot, Turkana and Samburu communities over the availability of grazing land in Kenya have escalated into armed conflict in recent years, a trend driven by severe droughts and the subsequent decline in pasture land. Locust swarms will aggravate this scarcity – over 70 000 acres of vegetation have already been demolished by locusts in Samburu East in the Rift Valley, increasing competition for land and heightening the conflict risk. 

The locust plagues highlight how climate change can increase the risk of conflict and how war can destroy the governance mechanisms and societal resilience that enables communities to cope with natural disasters and climate stress.

Featured image by: Jonathan Alpeyrie

Desert locust swarms have been multiplying across East Africa and the Middle East since January as a result of unusual climate processes. The desert locusts are crop-devouring insects that travel in swarms over 1 200km in size and eat as much in a single day as 35 000 people. Swarms are now plaguing parts of India and Pakistan, and a second wave of locusts is beginning to form in Kenya, Ethiopia and Sudan. The COVID-19 pandemic is hampering efforts to stop the spread of the swarms of locusts, exacerbating the pressure on the already food insecure region’s food supply.  

The current spate of locust swarms has affected communities in 23 countries, stretching from Tanzania to Pakistan. The locusts have most recently invaded Western India, affecting over 50 000 hectares of land, and Pakistan. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), an estimated 38% of Pakistan’s territory is now a ‘breeding ground’ for locusts, resulting in the worst locust plague in over three decades. 

In East Africa, the last major desert locust swarm hit at the end of the harvest season in February, resulting in an estimated US$8.5 billion in damages to crops, livestock and other assets. A new generation of locusts is now expected to hatch in the region in June. This may have an even greater impact on crops as this outbreak will coincide with the beginning of the harvest season. The new swarm is also expected to be larger. “I can’t tell you if it’s by 20 times, but [the population] is much bigger,” comments Cyril Ferrand, FAO Resilience Team Leader for East Africa. As a result, the FAO is predicting that up to 25 million East Africans may suffer from food shortages in 2020. 

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The outbreak of the COVID-19 virus has further complicated efforts to combat locusts. New safety regulations have disrupted supply chains, making it challenging to transport pesticides and other equipment to badly affected areas, while border closures have hampered essential personnel movement. Locust swarms travel quickly, covering up to 100km per day, so the ability to expediently move equipment and personnel is essential. 

While the world struggles to contain the COVID-19 virus, many communities affected by locusts feel like the swarms pose a more immediate threat. “Some people will even tell you that the locusts are more destructive than the coronavirus,” says Yoweri Aboket, a farmer in Uganda. The coronavirus has also impacted local communities’ ability to respond to the swarms threatening their livelihoods. “If the coronavirus was not around I could’ve sought help, but there’s nowhere I can run to now. All places are closed,” says Tiampati Leletit, a farmer in Northern Kenya.

The swarms are the result of unusually high levels of precipitation in the Arabian peninsula, likely caused by changes to the climate and environmental degradation. However, the response to the locust swarms also has the potential to negatively impact the environment. As locusts ravage crops, some farmers have had to resort to cutting down trees to sell for charcoal, resulting in deforestation. Efforts to combat the locusts also include widespread pesticide spraying, which can affect crop growth and lead to the death of domestic and wild animals. 

In January, the FAO appealed for $76 million in funds to support the fight against desert locusts, a sum that was upped to $153 million in April as the swarms expanded their range. So far, 85% of this target has been raised. With this sum, responders have been able to save up to 720 000 tons of wheat, enough to feed 5 million people. 

This is a promising start, but governments and organisations will need to continue to work together to curtail the locusts’ spread. During plagues, desert locusts can affect 20% of the world’s land mass, damaging the livelihoods of a tenth of the global population. This unprecedented risk has been complicated by the coronavirus, but we still have the opportunity to support those who are most vulnerable. The World Bank, for example, recently made $500 million available to preserve food security and protect the livelihoods of those impacted. Further similar efforts will be required in tandem with broader efforts aimed at combating the climate crisis that gave rise to this generation of locusts. 

This is a follow-up piece to Earth.Org’s first story about the locust swarms plaguing parts of Africa and Asia. See the first piece here.

Featured image by: Iwoelbern

2020 has so far seen swarms of locusts invading parts of East Africa, decimating crops and threatening food security, as well as bats in Australia, threatening the population with diseases. Is the climate crisis exacerbating these occurrences? 

Thousands of bats have invaded the town of Ingham in Queensland, Australia. The swarms of bats now outnumber the human population by thousands, creating fear among the town’s inhabitants; bats can cause lyssavirus, a rabies-like disease caused through bites and scratches. The town wants to get rid of the bats, however they are protected under Queensland law. 

Bats are known to carry many diseases, such as Ebola, SARS, MERS and the Marburg virus. While the animal acts as a natural reservoir for the illnesses, they do not get infected themselves. This is because the body temperature of the bat is maintained at around 40 degrees Celsius, too high for the viruses to activate. Scientists that have conducted research on the special immunity system of the bat have documented that some species can live up to 40 years, rare for an animal of its size. 

Because they can fly, bats are found all around the world and are able to adapt to both tropical and temperate climates. They reproduce quickly and it is estimated that one in five mammals are bats. 

Bats rarely spread viruses directly to humans, but can do so through biting. Most of the time however, they need an intermediate host. For example, it has been found that the masked palm civet was the intermediate host of the SARS outbreak in China and camels were found to be the intermediate host of the MERS virus in the Middle East. 

However, culling bats is not the answer. Bats are important pollinators in the tropics; many fruit tree species such as the durian have a specific species of bat as a pollinator. Bats are also an important keystone species that control the population of insects. 

The Implications of Climate Change for Bats

Researchers in Australia are still investigating the unusually large swarms of bats in Ingham. One hypothesis posits that the bats are looking for a suitable habitat to set up their colony after theirs was destroyed in the bush fires. 

How the Climate Crisis Exacerbates Harmful Swarms of Animals
An illustration showing the relationship between animals and humans in the spreading of viruses (Source: WhatsOrb.com).

Meanwhile, swarms of locusts invading East Africa have spread south to Uganda and Tanzania, threatening the already-fragile region’s population who already suffer from malnutrition with further food insecurity. Farmers and authorities have used drones and motorised sprayers to mass spray crops with pesticides, which are harmful to people. Additionally, insects could evolve to become pesticide-resistant. Farmers should rather use biopesticides such as fungus and bacteria, which are as effective but less harmful to humans. 

Climate scientists have said that unusually heavy rains brought by a cyclone off Somalia in December caused the deserts of Oman to become wetter than usual, conditions which provide favourable breeding grounds for locusts. This causes the usually solitary form of locust, the grasshopper, to develop group behaviour. This process, called ‘gregarisation’, is triggered by the signalling of pheromones from physical contact of each individual grasshopper. 

This change from solitary to group behaviour usually follows a period of drought and vegetation flushes after periods of rainfall. The locusts reproduce very quickly and a single swarm can span up to 1 200 square kilometres and can contain more than 80 million locusts per square kilometre. 

As the climate changes, weather patterns have become less predictable. In East Africa, there is usually one cyclone that makes landfall each year but there has been an increase in the frequency and intensity of the cyclones in the Indian Ocean. This change in precipitation may lead to more frequent locust invasions. 

Another factor contributing to increasing locust invasions is the reduction of the natural enemies of locusts, such as wasps, birds, reptiles and bats. This is due to deforestation and habitat destruction in East Africa. 

Meanwhile, a study in Europe has shown that insect populations have significantly declined by up to 80% in two decades in what is being called an ‘insect apocalypse’. The study looks at the number of insects hitting car registration plates, called the ‘splatometer’. This method is able to sample the number of insects in a large geographical range. 

The study coincides with the significant decline in worker bee populations observed around the world. The overuse of pesticides and destruction of habitats are the main causes for the reduction in insect numbers. Insects, especially bees, serve a vital ecological function for humans, including pest control and pollination. More diversity of insects means that ecosystems are better able to withstand external pressure. 

As we have entered the Holocene Extinction period, also known as the Anthropocene Extinction period, the number of species becoming extinct due to human activity is predicted to increase. It will eventually reach a tipping point and cause a cascade effect, further disturbing ecosystems and increasing the likelihood of swarms of animals invading regions. 

Featured image by: Adam Baker

Massive swarms of locusts have swept across much of East Africa, including Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia, decimating food crops. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has warned that these swarms threaten millions more people with hunger in an already fragile region. 

Some Desert Locusts swarms measure over 1200 square kilometers in size, an area roughly the size of Hong Kong, and contain 40-80 million locusts per square kilometer. Swarms of this size are estimated to eat as much food in a single day as over 40 million people. In a region that relies predominantly on smallholder agriculture, the increase in insects could quickly worsen food insecurity. “This has become a situation of international dimensions,” said FAO Director General Qu Dongyu.

Kenya, a key economic player in the region, hasn’t seen swarms of this size for more than 70 years. One especially large swarm in the north-east of the country measured 60km long by 40km wide. Ethiopia and Somalia haven’t observed destruction on this scale in over 25 years, and are struggling to contain the outbreak with aerial pesticides. 

The swarms shroud forests, ravage crops and cloud the skies, destroying hundreds of thousands of acres and leaving over 13 million people vulnerable to acute food insecurity. Abdinasir Hamud, a farmer in Northeastern Kenya said, “they attacked the corn and literally ate everything, leaving nothing but the stalk…we’ve lost at least 250,000 Kenyan Shillings (US$2400).”

Desert Locusts move at 150km an hour, and could quickly spread across the region. Keith Crossman, an expert on locust forecasting, noted that ‘the risk is very high that additional countries could be affected in the coming days’. Countries such as South Sudan, where almost half the country faces food insecurity and which are not typically affected by locusts, could be hit next. Small swarms have already been reported in Uganda and Tanzania.

The infestation is likely due to rapidly changing weather in East Africa. The region has seen unusually high levels of precipitation over the past six months, flooding the landscape in a season that is typically referred to as the ‘short rains’. Although rain is expected at this time, rainfall has been 400% heavier than usual, resulting in landslides and flooding that have killed more than 250 people in the past few months. 

The rains are the result of the Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD), similar to the El Niño phenomenon in the Pacific Ocean. The IOD refers to the seasonal difference in ocean surface temperatures that occurs between the Eastern and Western sides of the Indian Ocean. The difference typically fluctuates between -1 degree Celsius to 1 degrees Celsius. A positive temperature difference causes seasonal rains in East Africa, whereas a negative temperature difference results in drier weather. 

Desert Locust and Climate Change

This year, however, the temperature difference between the two oceanic poles spiked to 2 degrees Celsius, resulting in flooding throughout East Africa and arid conditions and bushfires in Australia. This represents the most extreme IOD conditions in over six decades. Experts suspect that stronger IODs may be linked to climate change, as the Indian Ocean now houses 70% of the heat absorbed by oceans since 2003. 

“The Indian Ocean is particularly sensitive to a warming world. It is the canary in the coalmine seeing big changes before others come to other tropical ocean areas,” said Caroline Ummenhofer, a scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, during an interview with The Guardian. Ummenhofer’s research also found that IOD events have become more common over the past 150 years. 

This new climate favours locusts, which have been able to breed at unprecedented rates. Further wet weather has been forecasted for the coming weeks, and experts predict that without intervention the number of locusts could increase five hundred fold by June. 

The UN has made $10 million available to support pest control operations in the affected areas in an attempt to counter the swarms of locusts’ rapid growth. The next generation of locusts is expected to hatch in February, and timelines to affect change are tight. The African Solidarity Trust Fund (ASTF) has also made $1 million available in flexible funds to support relief efforts. The FAO estimates, however, that a total of $76 million is needed to fully implement ground and aerial control operations. $18 million has so far been raised. 

Like many states in the region, Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia are positioned to be some of the countries most affected by climate change, despite their low carbon emissions. Kenya ranked in the top 50 most vulnerable countries by the Global Climate Risk Index in 2017, but contributes 0.13% of worldwide global emissions. Although many leaders in the region have pledged to support action against climate change, a global effort is required to support vulnerable communities in the firing line of the climate crisis. 

Featured image: Niv Singer 

This is the first piece in Earth.Org’s coverage of the swarms of locusts plaguing parts of Africa and Asia. See the second piece here.

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