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Beyond Covid-19 Health Security: A look at East Africa’s Locust Infestation and Food Security.

Ari Karp - Advisor, Conflict & Peace Program



As the world retreats into the comfort of their homes, protection of their FFP and N95 face masks and ease of access supermarkets, East Africa faces mounting invasion. Covid-19 health security has not replaced the issues of our world, rather, it has simply distracted the attention of the media and the global community. Media coverage on third world issues of food security, migration, conflict, basic hardship, livelihood and more, have been replaced with Covid-19 hysteria and regulations. Yet, as we begin to adapt to the physical-distancing reality, East Africa continues its battle, onset weeks before Covid-19 spread the globe, against a desert locust plague of biblical proportions – and the subsequent concerns of food security. 


Is Covid-19 the only concern? 


In the words of United Nations (UN) Humanitarian Chief, Mark Lowcock, the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2, SARS-CoV-2, pandemic (Covid-19) “has now affected every country and almost every person on the planet”. Whether economically, pathologically, emotionally, or simply in daily function, the effects of Covid-19 can be seen around the world. However, in the Greater Horn of Africa, this statement is only the tip of the iceberg. In fact, the impacts of Covid-19 only heighten the Greater Horn of Africa’s already rising concern, particularly in the nations of Djibouti, Ethiopia, Uganda and Kenya, as they face desert locust yet again, this time under the influence of Covid-19 and its regulations. 

Beyond the simple disruption of peace with the incessant mating call sounds plaguing the ears of locals, the infestation and influx of the desert locust poses great reason for major concern.


Although there is no evidence to support claims that they are carriers of disease, specifically those harmful to humans, or that they infect or assault humans or animals, desert locust present a particular cause of concern. Recognized as the most devastating of the locust family due to its ability to swarm to migrate and fly great distances, a desert locust adult consumes its weight, approximately 2 grams, in fresh food each day. To place this in proportion, a swarm of desert locust amounting to a ton would eat the equivalent of 2,500 people in a single day. So devastating is the appetite of desert locusts that during plagues, they can easily affect twenty percent of the entire planet’s agriculture and potentially devastate the food source and livelihood of a tenth of the planet’s population. 


If you add to this already significant concern, the rate of reproduction – in good meteorological and ecological conditions a rate of 20-fold within three months – and the migration-distance capability – between 80 to 150 kilometers per day – it becomes an even more increasing concern. In fact, left undetected or uncontrolled, swarms of desert locust can progress to unprecedented levels until they become global plagues. These plagues are so devastating in nature that their impact can often take years and significant capital to quell, which, even once done, are guaranteed to have a significant negative impact on food-accessibility and livelihood to large portions of the world. This poses great concern in the already food scarce region, particularly amidst Covid-19 where health is at risk across the globe and movement of persons, goods and services are highly restricted. 

Desert Locust Breeding and Invasion: 


Although the past century has seen a number of locust plagues and upsurges, the current situation has been identified as the worst in over 25 years, with Kenya experiencing its worst outbreak in over 70 years. 2019 brought with it a continuously fluctuating reality between bone-dry droughts and devastating floods, yet the arrival of Cyclone Pawan, and the subsequent flooding saw the Horn of Africa become a luscious breeding-ground for the pesky desert locust. Further bolstered by the increasingly deteriorating weather conditions in the following months, the breeding magnitude of the desert locust hit unsurmountable proportions as it spread across the African nations. From Somalia and Ethiopia, the swarms hit Kenya and its neighboring nations, eating the local food stores dry and leaving a famine in its wake. The African nations, reeling from an already terrifyingly bleak food supply due to inopportune and extreme climate, now finds itself in dire straits. With the 2020 harvest season in full swing, Kenyans and the residents in the Horn of Africa are forced to watch as their intended harvest is devoured by the plague of locust. Moreover, the locust fully fed are reproducing at alarming rates, only increasing the threat and famine levels. 


This situation is only worsened by the effects and restrictions of Covid-19. With a mere handful of planes to effectively spray and spread the pesticides across the nation’s territory in Kenya, local farmers and populations found themselves fighting the locust swarms each day and even called in the military for assistance. However, even what success might have been, is further limited as the continuous supply of pesticides to thwart and fight against this locust invasion is hampered by restricted aerial flights due to the current COVID-19 pandemic. The effects of a near half a year of desert locusts on the region’s agriculture, particularly in the height of harvest season indicates a grim future for the region. This Covid-19 affected locust situation, leaves us as spectators to not only a threat to food and health insecurity, but to a high effect on migration as well. 


Prophecy of Migration and Displacement: 


According to UN DESA estimates, 2019 saw recognition of Uganda (1.7m), Ethiopia (1.3m) and Kenya (1m) as three of the region's nations playing host to the greatest number of international migrants. Whether economic, agricultural, or simple livelihood, the combination of Covid-19 with the locust plague, places greater stress on the region, and these nations in particular. With the situation’s developments, we are likely to see these vast hosting and destination epicenters for international and regional migrants capsize and perhaps even transform into an origin nation of internal, regional and international migrants and displaced individuals. The World Bank in a recent economic projection, regarding projected Covid-19 impacts to the region, sees sub-Saharan economies shrinking by 5.1%, with 2.5-7% of agriculture affected and between $37b-$79b in output losses, in 2020 alone. This foreshadows not only a recession, rising tide of displacement and sporadic migration due to food insecurity, but increased rates of conflict and prejudice for the nations and neighboring regions. 


Review of the FAO DLCC: 


As we examine and begin to understand the implications of this plague as it rises in impact, we must take a look at the warning system in place. In 1955, amidst a 12-year-long desert locust plague affecting the world, the FAO established the Desert Locust Control Committee (DLCC). This committee was and continues to serve as a global coordinating body for locust early warning and preventive control, bringing together locust-impacted nations for forums of discussion and coordination. Tasked with locust early warning and preventive control the question remains, where were they? 


Destiny of Conflict in Food Insecurity: 


With calls to action, for funding and global rise to assistance, the reality for East Africa remains bleak as the ability to properly combat this rising plague remains limited at best in the face of Covid-19 restrictions. Whether it be to protect their food stores and cash piles or alternatively to gain access to nutrient and capital, as outlined by Charles Martin-Shields and Wolfgang Stojetz in the FAO working paper on food security and conflict, the relations between food (in)security and conflict is direct. As access to food and medicine grows scarcer, conflict will rise leading to both a state of insecurity and irregular migration. The simple fact that food insecurity induces conflict and forces migration and displacement is an age-old certainty and serves as a dark prophecy for what is only beginning and all too certain to be brought to fruition in the Horn of Africa – and they are not alone.

 

As we begin to comprehend the implications of this plague of desert locus we see the effects traversing Africa as swarms begin to pop up and highly impact the Middle East as well. While the world’s nations begin their healing and discovery journey towards a new sense of post-Covid-19 normalcy, we must not forget that the plagues of yesterday still haunt our world. The need for an alliance of multilateralism, as proposed by France and Germany last September in the UN, is more important now than ever before. We must stand together, united in collective assistance and determination to the realization of an action-based effort to combat, alleviate and prevent against both the effects Covid-19 pandemic has brought to bear as well as keeping vigilant and active against other threats to our peace and security – lest we see history repeat itself as we tumble back to conflict and rising tides of insecurity and migration. 


Image Credits:

1. Kurokawa/EPA

2. FAO/Carl de Souza 

Ari Karp, currently residing in Israel, is finishing his M.A. in Counter-Terrorism and Homeland Security with a cluster in Cyber Security at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya (IDC). Ari also holds a B.A. in Government, Diplomacy and Strategy. Having served, and continuing to serve, as an intern and research assistant in various institutes including the International Institute of Counter Terrorism (ICT), the Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS), and the Abba Eban Institute for International Diplomacy (AEI).




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