There seems something Biblical about this year’s twin crises of COVID-19 pandemic and locust plagues in much of the world. Are the other two Horsemen of the Apocalypse already saddling up? Maybe – but in the meantime, what can policymakers do to deal effectively with two deep crises simultaneously? Regions affected by both disasters will need to track and exterminate locust swarms in COVID-19 lockdown conditions, presenting unique and potentially devastating challenges to already overburdened governments.
The ongoing locust plague’s and the simultaneous the COVID-19 pandemic threatens the food security of East Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. While locust plagues had declined in severity through the 20th century, in the past few years climate change and irregular weather patterns have resulted in conditions perfect for spawning the voracious pests. This year’s locust plagues are the most severe in a quarter century across the horn of Africa and are the worst Kenya has seen in three score years and ten.
The regions most impacted by locusts already faced rising food insecurity due to COVID-19 lockdowns, which have severely disrupted some supply chains. That includes obstructing the spraying of insecticide, the most proven method for exterminating locust swarms. Both Somalia and Kenya are facing issues with insecticide supply lines and delivery times as production in Europe and Asia has been hit by government shutdowns, increasing shipping costs threefold. While the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is looking to source insecticide from local suppliers, East African governments are rapidly exhausting existing supplies of insecticide. Training insecticide sprayers has also proven difficult due to social distancing rules constraining group activities. However, Ethiopia and neighboring countries have declared monitoring and pesticide spraying as essential services to ensure that these efforts can continue.
To combat these dual crises, the World Bank has approved a $500 million program to provide flexible support to countries impacted. This is on top of $130 million for pest control activities raised by the FAO earlier this year.
Some countries in plague-ridden regions are developing new methods for tracking and predicting locust swarms. The FAO is utilizing a tracking technology titled ‘eLocust3’, including a mobile app version, increasing countries’ capacities to share geo-referenced reports of locust movements and control operations in real time. Satellite imagery from NASA and the European Space Agency is being used by the FAO to locate locust swarms. India, Somalia, and Kenya are all utilizing drones to locate and track locusts, while the FAO is developing prototypes of “smart” drones capable of tracking and spraying locusts with insecticide. In Kenya, a supercomputer housed at the Intergovernmental Authority on Development climate prediction and applications centre in Nairobi is being used to forecast emerging locust swarms with over 90% accuracy.
All these efforts may still not be enough to contain the locust plague, and policy experts are urging the international community to invest in pest-tracking technology and share expertise with underequipped African governments.
Other countries have found innovative solutions to circumvent the issues surrounding disrupted supply chains for insecticide. China has deployed 100,000 ducks to Pakistan, claiming each animal will eat 200 locusts a day. Experts have questioned the project’s practicality, as ducks may not adjust well to the desert climates where locusts spawn. Pakistan has unveiled a cash-for-locusts pilot program, where farmers are employed to capture locusts, which are then turned into poultry feed. Biopesticide is also being used to exterminate locust swarms, as a more sustainable and less environmentally harmful alternative, though it is probably less effective when compared to synthetic insecticides.
Even as governments continue to fight locust plagues ravaging agricultural production, food shortages may be an inevitable consequence of COVID-19 related disruptions. Recent UNICEF research shows that African populations have so far been relatively less affected directly by the coronavirus disease, but are still very vulnerable to food insecurity, hunger, and malnutrition stemming from COVID-19 lockdowns. World Food Programme projections indicate that the number of people facing food insecurities could double this year from 135 million in 2019.
Critically, say agricultural policy experts, governments must not repeat the mistakes of the 2008-2012 food shortages. In dealing with coronavirus and locust-related food insecurity, countries should avoid protectionism and export bans and prioritize economic safety nets, while investing in the health of agricultural workers and punishing opportunistic profiteers.
The wrong government reaction to the twin threats of virus and locust could drive millions to starvation. With proper investment and precautionary measures taken, afflicted nations can still secure food supply chains and eradicate locust swarms. Multilateral coordination has a potentially crucial part to play. There are encouraging examples of collaboration, such as Kuwait and Saudi Arabia engaging jointly in a concerted locust eradication program and longtime rivals India and Pakistan considering working together on pest control. Here’s hoping that focused interventions by governments and development banks will help prevent these first two horsemen ending in Armageddon.