Geographies in Depth

Locusts are putting 5 million people at risk of starvation – and that’s without COVID-19

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 - RC2LHE9A64LU

It is the most serious desert locust outbreak in 70 years. Image: REUTERS/Njeri Mwangi

Emma Charlton
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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  • 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.

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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.


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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.”

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Geographies in DepthHealth and Healthcare SystemsFood and WaterIndustries in Depth
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