Q. What is a locust and why is it so damaging?
A. Locusts belong to a family of grasshoppers called Acrididae. The Desert Locust (Schistocerca gregaria), found in various parts of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, is considered the most destructive migratory pest in the world because they are highly mobile and can form swarms containing millions of locusts, leading to devastating impacts on crops, pasture and fodder. A small swarm (1 km2) can be made up of 80 million locusts and can consume the same amount of food in one day as 35,000 people, while a large swarm can eat up to 1.8 million metric tons of green vegetation, equivalent to food enough to feed 81 million people. Locusts breed very fast and— a single female locust can lay egg pods containing anywhere from 80- 150 eggs. Locusts do not attack people or animals.
Q. Where is the current Locust outbreak?
A. Swarms of desert locusts are threatening large areas of pastures and crops, overwhelming countries in the Horn of Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) says these swarms represent the worst infestation in 25 years in Ethiopia and Somalia, in 26 years in India, and the worst in 70 years in Kenya. The crisis has affected 23 countries to date, from Pakistan to Tanzania. This is a single global outbreak, and if it reaches plague levels, it could cover 20 percent of the earth’s land mass.
Q. Why is this outbreak so serious and could it get worse?
A. In the wider East Africa region, the above average rainy season in March and April created favorable conditions for locusts to breed – increasing their number and the areas they could spread to. If left unchecked, the number of desert locusts could grow by 400 times by June, as each generation has a 20-fold increase in population on average.
Within the region, 24 million people are food insecure and 8 million are internally displaced. The locusts further threaten their food security and their ability to access pasture for livestock. These impacts on the food cycle could drastically threaten livelihoods, erode people’s savings, and push people further into poverty. The cost of response during the last major locust outbreak in 2003-05 in West Africa, grew from $1 million in June 2003 to $100 million just 14 months later. Ultimately, it cost over $450 million to end the 2003-2005 plague, which caused an estimated $2.5 billion in crop damage.
Q. What is the potential impact of the outbreak?
A. Without broad scale control, conservative estimates for locust-related losses including for staple crops, livestock production, and asset damages are estimated at US$8.5 billion for countries in the wider East Africa region, Djibouti and Yemen. This locust invasion coincides with the long rainy season and comes at a time when farming communities are preparing to harvest their crops between the months of March and April. The current situation could affect their livelihood and their means of survival in the coming months. The impact on communities is also likely to be long-term, affecting their ability to rebuild savings, regrow crops and livestock, and to weather future shocks.
Q. What countries are currently affected by this?
A. The outbreak is evolving quickly. As of mid-April 2020, 23 countries have been affected: 9 in the wider East Africa region, 11 in North Africa & the Middle East, and 3 in South Asia. A recent joint impact assessment report by the Government of Ethiopia and FAO estimates that the desert locust outbreak in Ethiopia alone has caused 356,286 metric tons of cereal loss, along with destruction of 197,163 ha of cropland and 1,350,000 ha of pasturelands, with more than 1 million Ethiopians in need of food assistance as result.
Q. How is COVID-19 impacting the locust response?
A. The locust crisis overlaps with the COVID-19 pandemic, creating a crisis within a crisis. By itself, the COVID-19 pandemic has the potential to create a severe food security crisis in Africa, as elsewhere, as agricultural production contracts and food imports decline. Local agri-food supply chains are already experiencing disruptions, including reduced access to inputs and services, labor movement, transport and roadblocks, and credit or liquidity due to COVID-19. In particular, the pandemic is disrupting the supply chains for pesticides and other equipment necessary to control the spread of locusts.
Addressing the locust crisis seriously also faces significant constraints. Border closures and delays posed by quarantine measures are imposing restrictions on the movement of personnel and equipment to aid in the locust response. Even in those countries where the government is making locust response an essential activity and allowing teams to move, special care needs to be taken to reduce the threats that aid workers and control officers spread the virus to remote rural locations where locust control operations take place. Where Bank programs are financing responses, measures to protect teams and the communities they engage with are required.
Taken together, these two crises have the potential to generate the conditions for famine, disease and increased poverty.
Q. What is the World Bank doing to help control the current situation from getting worse?
The World Bank Group has approved a US$ 500 million program to provide flexible support to countries in Africa and the Middle East affected by the locust outbreak. The priority is helping affected households to meet their immediate food needs and to safeguard their physical and human capital assets via cash transfers and other social protection measures. Follow up actions will focus on rehabilitating food production and livelihood systems to get communities back on their feet, while strengthening national surveillance and early warning systems to mitigate the threat of future outbreaks.
The “first-mover” countries to be financed under the initial phase of the program are also among the hardest hit and they include Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Uganda, with a total financing package of US$160 million. Financing is also being provided for locust response efforts in Yemen (US$ 25 million) and Somalia (US$ 40 million). Preparations are underway to provide support to other countries in upcoming phases of the program.
The Bank has already disbursed/reallocated $13.7 million to Kenya in emergency funding to finance locust surveillance and control measures. In addition, $600,000 in emergency financing will be provided to help affected communities in Djibouti control and cope with the locust plague.
Q. How does climate change potentially affect this situation?
A. Climate change is a key driver of the current outbreak. Swarms of desert locusts have been recorded in the region for centuries, but unusual weather conditions generated strong cyclones and heavy rains in the Arabian Peninsula, triggered higher than normal vegetation growth that created ideal conditions for locusts to feed on and surge, scientists say. Rising sea temperatures are expected to lead to more extreme rainfall - creating enabling conditions for hatching and breeding. Cyclones that disperse the swarms are getting stronger and more frequent.
Q. How can locust swarms be controlled?
A. Locust swarms move quickly and are unpredictable in their movements. This makes it challenging to contain their growth and spread. Safe and effective use of pesticides, including biopesticides, through aerial and ground spraying is necessary to reduce their propagation and prevent their spread to new areas. The World Bank is coordinating closely with the FAO, which is the leading technical agency globally on desert locust control, other partner organizations, and countries to develop integrated pest management plans and to support countries to undertake safe and effective control operations.
Q. Who normally carries out locust control operations?
A. Locust survey and control are often the responsibility of Plant Protection agencies and Ministries of Agriculture in locust affected countries, and operations are often undertaken by national locust units, at least in countries situated in recession zones--or locust breeding zones--where locusts are endemic. There are also regional locust organizations—e.g., Desert Locust Control Organization—that assist with surveillance and control operations. Internationally, FAO is the lead responder organization and provides important technical assistance to affected countries. During outbreaks and plagues, external assistance from the international donor community and other international organizations is usually required to overcome an outbreak.