• Locust outbreak could leave nearly 5 million people in Africa facing starvation.
  • The crisis comes on top of food insecurity already exacerbated by COVID-19.
  • A locust swarm can contain as many as 80 million adults.
  • A swarm can consume the same amount of food in one day as 35,000 people.

A second crisis is ravaging an area of Africa that’s already grappling with the impact of COVID-19: locusts.

The most serious desert locust outbreak in 70 years could leave nearly 5 million people in East Africa facing starvation, according to the International Rescue Committee (IRC). It comes as many of the countries in the region are already struggling to manage food insecurity caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

locusts swarms east africa food pest insects food crops development agriculture
Desert Locusts are swarming across East Africa.
Image: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has already warned that the pandemic has left some of the world’s most vulnerable communities facing “a crisis within a crisis,” as it disrupts supply chains and hammers the economy, exacerbating the global hunger problem.

What is the World Economic Forum doing about the coronavirus outbreak?

Responding to the COVID-19 pandemic requires global cooperation among governments, international organizations and the business community, which is at the centre of the World Economic Forum’s mission as the International Organization for Public-Private Cooperation.

Since its launch on 11 March, the Forum’s COVID Action Platform has brought together 1,667 stakeholders from 1,106 businesses and organizations to mitigate the risk and impact of the unprecedented global health emergency that is COVID-19.

The platform is created with the support of the World Health Organization and is open to all businesses and industry groups, as well as other stakeholders, aiming to integrate and inform joint action.

As an organization, the Forum has a track record of supporting efforts to contain epidemics. In 2017, at our Annual Meeting, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) was launched – bringing together experts from government, business, health, academia and civil society to accelerate the development of vaccines. CEPI is currently supporting the race to develop a vaccine against this strand of the coronavirus.

Now locusts are destroying crops that could have been a lifeline. A square-kilometre swarm can consume the same amount of food in one day as 35,000 people. Kenya, Uganda, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia, Eritrea, Djibouti and Sudan are among the worst-hit countries and the outbreak threatens to spread wider, the IRC says.

Around one in five of the world’s acutely food-insecure people are in the IGAD region, an area of 5.2 million square kilometres that comprises Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan and Uganda, according to a report from the Global Network Against Food Crises.

While weather extremes were the primary cause in 2019, most of the countries are vulnerable to conflict, insecurity and economic shocks. Without taking into account the effects of COVID-19, more than 25 million people will face acute food insecurity requiring urgent action in 2020, the IRC says – it’s calling for larger scale funding to help mitigate the onset.

locusts swarms east africa food pest insects food crops development agriculture
Food insecurity drivers.
Image: Food Security Information Network

Left uncontrolled, the locust plagues that develop can take years and hundreds of millions of dollars to bring under control, according to the FAO. Without intervention the organization predicts a 50-70% cereal harvest loss in the worst case, or at least 20-30% loss in the best case.

The FAO operates a Desert Locust Information Service to monitor the situation, provide information and help give warnings and forecasts to those countries in danger. The IRC estimates that tackling the emergency in Somalia – the hardest-hit country so far – alone needs an additional $1.98 million this year.

“This is the worst locust invasion we have seen in a generation,” says IRC’s local partner Sahal Farah, Community Resilience Committee Vice Chairman for Docol in Somalia. “Huge hectares of pasture land were completely destroyed.”