Monstrously large numbers of locusts are tearing through East Africa, leaving devastation and food shortages in their wake.
The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) said that heavy rains across the region will mean the latest wave of locusts is up to 20 times bigger than a huge swarm that formed in January.
At the start of this year swarms reached up to 40 kilometres by 60 kilometres. A single swarm covering one square kilometre contains up to 80 million locusts and can eat the same amount of food in one day as 35,000 people.
The forthcoming onslaught could be several hundred times bigger. The next generation of swarms is due to form in late June and early July—the start of the harvest season.
The invasion risks exacerbating an already precarious food situation in the Horn of Africa. Some 40 percent of the 160 million people in the region are undernourished.
The FAO points to rapidly-growing swarms in Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia, some of which are expected to migrate to South Sudan, Yemen and Uganda.
In the last few months African countries have reported a shortage of aircraft to carry out spraying of locust swarms. Those Western governments that are always capable of bombing people from the air have not provided the aircraft to save them.
Supplies of pesticides and spraying equipment have further dried up as Covid-19 brings supply chains to a halt.
And in any case pesticides are hugely damaging for the crops and ecosystems left behind. The chemicals used can have a terrible impact on bees and other pollinators critical for long-term food security.
Climate change is the driving factor behind the swarms.
Francesco Rigamonti, the charity Oxfam’s regional humanitarian coordinator, said January’s outbreak “was clearly worsened by unusually heavy rains in the region and there is an interaction with the unusual cyclonic activity.
“It’s difficult to say that it is due to climate change—but there is an interaction between the two. What we do know is that we are having a lot of extreme events like droughts, floods and now locusts in the region, we need to be prepared.”
Heavy rains in May and October 2018 meant two generations of desert locusts formed into swarms.
“We know that cyclones are the originators of swarms—and in the past ten years, there’s been an increase in the frequency of cyclones in the Indian Ocean,” said Keith Cressman, FAO senior locust forecasting officer.
The process was discussed in Socialist Worker 15 years ago.
The cyclones and the abnormal weather are linked to the Indian Ocean dipole. This phenomenon, similar to La Nina in the Pacific, is accentuated by climate change.
Droughts and floods have already exacerbated food insecurity across the continent. Southern Africa was hit by Cyclone Idai in 2019 that brought destruction in Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi.
And the situation is only set to worsen. Africa is set to be particularly badly hit by global soaring temperatures—20 of the fastest warming countries are in the continent.
Immediate and internationally coordinated action is needed now to destroy the swarns. The disastrous US-led invasion of Somalia in 1992-3 cost at least the equivalent of $4.25 billion today. The US has pledged less than 0.2 percent of that to fight locusts.
And only urgent and radical action on the climate catastrophe can tackle the locusts and the system that breeds them.