Swarms of locusts on track to devour African economies

Samburu men attempt to fend-off a swarm of desert locusts flying over a grazing land in Lemasulani village, Samburu County, Kenya January 17, 2020. REUTERS/Njeri Mwangi TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

Sadly, the northeastern African countries of Somalia, Ethiopia and Sudan are best known for the heart-rending images they have produced over the years when there has been famine and starvation.

Few who have seen the award-winning image of a baby being stalked by a vulture in Sudan will forget it.

The entire region, descending as far south as Tanzania and as far west as the fringes of the Democratic Republic of Congo, is facing the real possibility of a famine that will rival any that have gone before. The reason: huge swarms of desert locusts that are eating everything in their path.

Already subsistence farmers in Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya, Eritrea and Sudan have seen their crops vanish under the swarms that, apparently, can be heard chewing from some distance away.

Where on earth did they come from, one legitimately asks? The swarms originated in the Arabian Desert, where they were dormant for ages. But two strong cyclones have swept across the desert since late 2018, turning parts of the desert into open lakes. The water woke the dormant locusts, which were then swept westward to descend on northeastern Africa.

In a strange way the destructive swarms of locusts in Africa are connected to the drought and bush fires in Australia. While hardly next-door neighbours, the climate of both regions is strongly influenced by what is known as the Indian Ocean dipole.

In short, if the dipole is positive, it brings extreme weather conditions to the Arabian peninsula (hence the lakes in the desert) and if it is negative, then the oceans near Australia warm up, bringing drought and extremely dry conditions such as those that helped fuel the recent catastrophic bush fires there.

All this, some scientists say, comes as a result of global warming and the resultant climate change. While there are, no doubt, global warming sceptics who will argue the toss, they will not be able to talk away the damage being done by locusts and fires.

Desert locusts reproduce every three months and each successive swarm is many times larger than the one that went before. So as the main crops of the region are about to sprout, locusts are laying eggs, hatching and creating ever larger swarms.

Some UN experts have advised that the window of opportunity to control the infestations is still open but it will cost about $138m to combat the locusts and bring food to those already without crops.

The issue is that it is better to deal with the locusts now than to deal with a catastrophic famine and food crisis in a few months’ time. The UN statement confirmed this.

The World Food Programme (WFP) has, reportedly, estimated the cost of responding to the effect of locusts on food security alone to be at least 15 times higher than the cost of preventing the spread now.

The organisations involved — the UN, the Food and Agriculture Organisation and WFP — have welcomed some of the funding that has come in. About $33m has been received or promised but it is nowhere near enough.

It is time for the rich countries of the world to get involved for, as the WFP has been reported as saying, “The maths is clear, as is our moral obligation. Pay a little now or pay a lot more later.”

But, as has happened in the past, no-one really takes notice of Africa. And the international response to disaster, as was the case with the Australian bush fires, is often too little too late. And $138m globally is not a lot of money, but where will it come from and will it come in time?

In the absence of an adequate international response, all African countries must pitch in. Every spare can of insecticide must go towards killing the locusts. If not, the spread of economic and famine refugees will soon rival the swarms of locusts themselves.

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