Robert Rotberg is the founding director of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Program on Intrastate Conflict, a former senior fellow at CIGI and president emeritus of the World Peace Foundation.
Unceasing civil war, pestilence, drought, floods, HIV/AIDS, drug-resistant TB, and now – blotting out the sky and eating all of their crops – a horde of locusts. Swarms of relentless desert locusts in their buzzing billions are eating their way across all of eastern Africa.
At least 20 million people, and potentially 13 million more, are going hungry. Millions will starve because clouds of approximately 80 million desert locusts per square kilometre are voracious. In one day they consume wheat, barley, sorghum, or maize crops that feed 35,000 people. Masses the size of cities can consume 1.8 million metric tons of vegetation every day – enough to feed 81 million people.
What is more, an apocalypse of locusts can travel 150 kilometres a day, consuming as they go and leaving no subsistence crops, no cash crops (not even cotton), and no fodder for grazing animals in their wake. Already 40 per cent of Ethiopia’s grain has been eaten, just as it was ready for harvest. South Sudan, finally recovering from a seven-year civil war that forfeited 2 million civilian lives, is losing what little food remains available to villagers. Somalia, beset by continuing civil war between al-Qaeda-linked Islamist terrorists and a U.S.- and Turkish-backed federal government, is almost completely devoid of grazing for sheep and goats – one of the impoverished country’s few sources of protein.
The locust menace has spread into Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, and the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, already the scene of Ebola, outbreaks of measles, and steady civil conflagration. These parts of the world have seen nothing like today’s locust numbers and ferocity for at least 70 years. Before then, two-inch-long desert locusts with their black striped thoraxes and insatiable appetites had periodically threatened the British, Belgian, and Italian colonies that preceded today’s nations. But only rarely did the devastation equal what is now occurring, with much larger and more vulnerable local populations at severe risk.
This year’s locusts originated, as earlier ones did, in the deserts of Yemen and Saudi Arabia. Ample rains brought fresh, lush, unusual vegetation. That allowed adults to lay little pink eggs that, after about six weeks, matured into massive munching machines. Cyclonic winds that arrived at just the right moment propelled them out of the desert and across the Red Sea into the Horn of Africa and eastern Africa. The locusts have even gone east, into Iran, Qatar, Bahrain, and Kuwait.
The warming of the Earth and climatic disturbances that already in the past year have brought massive tropical storms to Zimbabwe and Mozambique and then to Somalia, unusual floods to Kenya and Uganda, and renewed drought to much of the Sahel, Somalia, and Sudan, are largely responsible for the renewed plague of locusts, and for their numbers. Desert locusts develop the wings that they need to swarm across seas and continents with the help of warming temperatures and the right amount of rain to grow the plants that they need for food.
Wherever there is enough to eat, locusts reproduce, on a three-month cycle. That means that billions of locusts are laying eggs again all over the African arena that has been invaded. Soon, with the arrival of seasonal rains, there will be a frenzy of renewed destruction. Eastern African farmers cannot easily escape massive crop losses and the relentless spectre of hunger.
The UN Food and Agriculture Organization has requested US$138-million to help the affected nations battle the locust infestation. So far only US$52-million has been contributed by wealthy nations, thus limiting what can be done.
The defence against the locust invasion now consists of aerial and ground spraying of insecticides (which harm other insects and small and large fauna, and poison water supplies), setting fire at night to clusters of insects in trees, and going after locusts with sticks and machetes. Somalia is attempting, as well, to stall the locusts with novel biopesticide applications of a deadly fungus. So far, none of those remedial methods has worked well, and 100,000 hectares still needs to be sprayed. Chemical pesticide supplies are low, too, and have run out in northern Kenya.
Given such bleak prognoses, the World Food Programme will soon have another acute African hunger crisis on its hands. Only concerted international action, especially cash to purchase pesticides, can save eastern Africans from becoming casualties of the globe’s failure to reduce global warming.
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