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Locust infestations: Supporting affected communities

East Africa is currently experiencing the largest locust infestation in decades. Parts of South Asia and the Middle East are also affected. Due to the rapid reproduction of the insects, the spread of the swarms can hardly be stopped. People are losing their livelihoods and suffering existential distress. In combination with extreme weather conditions such as droughts and floods, conflicts and the coronavirus pandemic, East Africa is now threatened by a worsening food insecurity and hunger. We are working on the ground to support the affected communities and secure their livelihood.

Locust outbreak has devastating consequences for East Africa

Huge swarms of locusts are capable of devoring whole farmlands within minutes. The livelihoods of millions of people in East Africa have been threatened. The swarms consist of hundreds of millions of desert locusts and some of them cover an area of almost 2,500 square kilometers. The first swarms moved over the Horn of Africa as early as the end of 2019, affecting communities in Ethiopia, Somalia, Uganda, Southern Sudan and Kenya.

The current locust infestation is the worst outbreak Kenya has seen in over 70 years. Countries in Asia such as Pakistan and India have also been struggling with the insects for months. In Pakistan, a national emergency was declared in early 2020 due to the current situation.

Some regions of East Africa are already faced with food insecurity. Many people in rural areas in the region live below the poverty line. Their livelihood of agriculture and livestock farming is being impacted by the infestation. The locusts have destroyed their harvests and grazing land for their livestock. For cattle rearers, losing livestock means losing an entire livelihood.

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How locust infestations occur

Desert locusts usually live as solitary animals and avoid contact with other members of their species. However, under certain conditions, this behaviour can change. If the insects are forced to cluster together in a confined space, they transform from solitary animals into social animals. They multiply, form swarms and go in search of food together. The reasons for locusts suddenly developing a group dynamic and merging to form swarms have been the subject of research for many years. The behaviour is most evident when the locusts do not find enough food.

Weather conditions also contribute to their rapid reproduction. Wet grounds after extreme rainfall provide locusts with ideal breeding conditions. This means  the insects multiply en masse in dry regions, especially during rainy periods.

Is climate change to blame for the locust plague?

Climate change has had an impact on locust infestations. According to experts, the "Indian Ocean Dipole" is responsible for this. The weather phenomenon describes a naturally occurring anomaly of the sea surface temperature in the Indian Ocean. This only occurs every four to six years. However, 2019 and 2020 have seen successive occurrences of the dipole.

At the same time, sea surface in the eastern part of the Indian Ocean is unusually cool, thus creating high air pressure on land. For Australia, which borders the ocean, this phenomenon means, for instance, long dry periods, which have led to the devastating bush fires. Eastern winds drive the cool air across the ocean to the African coast in the west. Along the way, the atmosphere absorbs more moisture and heats up. This results in torrential rainfall and flooding, which in turn dramatically increases the risk of a locust infestation.

Why are locust swarms devastating?

If the locusts go searching for food in swarms, the implications are downright destructive. The desert locusts eat green plants, millet, rice and grain, among other things. They eat the same amount as their own body weight, i.e. about two grams, every day.

Just one square kilometre of locusts needs as much food every day as 35,000 people. As soon as the pests have completely devoured the vegetation in an area, they move on – the animals can thus cover up to 150 kilometres in one day.

In addition, there is the exponential increase of the desert locusts. A single female lays up to 80 eggs in the ground. After two weeks the new locusts hatch, after ten days they can fly. In only three months the population can increase twentyfold due to the new generations, after half a year it can even be 400 times larger under favourable breeding conditions.

Can the locusts be eaten?

In many countries, locusts have already become a part of the diet because they are particularly rich in protein. Therefore, the fundamental question is whether the insects are suitable to ward off hunger when other food sources becomes scarce. However, researchers explicitly advise against eating the animals, as they eat poisonous plants in large swarms and thus become poisonous themselves.

If the pests are controlled using pesticides, eating them may also pose a danger to humans. Furthermore, given the size of the swarms, it is seldom possible to catch the locusts in sufficient time before they cause any damage

How we are supporting communities affected by the locusts in Kenya

Along with partner organziation, PACIDA and in coordination with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) we are supporting people affected by the locust infestation in Kenya.

To compensate for their losses, we use M-Pesa, an electronic mobile money service, to pay out money via mobile phones to particularly needy families so that they can provide themselves with the most basic necessities of life. This way, people can independently make decisions tailored to their needs; they can choose to buy food for their livestock or food for their families.

We are also supporting the Kenyan government and the FAO in monitoring and locating locust swarms, while providing information on which regions and areas are particularly affected.

Containing the locust infestation

Although the extent of the locust infestation in East Africa was foreseeable, reaction to the emegency was late. Many regions lack the adequate resources to combat the infestation effectively. Nevertheless, with the help of agricultural experts, governments have now begun to contain the spread and bring the situation under control.

Desert locusts can be stopped using chemicals, such as pesticides. However, the widespread use of pesticides also poses a threat to the population, animals and plants in the short and long term. Research is ongoing into other biological control methods, such as using fungal spores that attack and kill the insects.

Updates and News on the desert locust infestation

12.02.2020

Malteser International prepares response to locust infestation in Kenya

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Millions of desert locusts have been destroying vegetation and threatening millions of lives across East Africa and Kenya for the past few months. Sallo Guyo Wario has never experienced such a plague. The people in the northeast of Kenya live from cattle farming, but there is hardly anything left for the cows and goats to eat. We are providing emergency assistance to respond to the acute needs of affected communities. 

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Support communities whose livelihoods are threatened by locusts!
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