A Plague on All Your Countries: Locusts and Climate Change

The essentials: Massive swarms of locusts are currently active in Somalia, Kenya, and Ethiopia and threaten the food security of millions in the whole region. The plague is the result of both natural breeding cycles and human-made climate change.

The context: Locusts are a family of insects that bear a strong resemblance to grasshoppers, but come with a critical difference: under the right environmental conditions, they can change both their behavior and physiology. If they encounter a period of heavy rains after a dry spell, the ordinarily solitary animals will band together and form swarms of millions of individuals that start migrating to take advantage of the suddenly abundant supply of food. In the current outbreak, the main species of concern is the Desert Locust.

Because these swarms can cover up to 150km per day, with females continuing to lay eggs and each insect eating its weight in green vegetation every day, these plagues can devastate agriculture production of whole regions within a short amount of time and last for several years. Under the right conditions, locusts can multiply 20-fold in three months, and past plagues have impacted more than half of the world's developing countries at the same time. The last major plague recorded by the FAO lasted for 13 years through the 1950s and parts of the 60s.

It is possible to control the development of plagues, using both chemical pesticides and naturally occurring fungal spores. Still, both methods require aerial spraying, which is expensive and relies on infrastructure and access to the areas where locusts congregate.

This combination of these factors has led to the escalation of the ongoing locust crisis in Somalia, Ethiopia, and Kenya, which may spread to other countries and could undermine the food security of millions of people in the whole region. The trigger has been the Indian Ocean Dipole, the same climate phenomenon that has caused the extreme drought currently experienced by Australia but has lead to torrential rain in East Africa. While a naturally occurring phenomenon, the Indian Ocean Dipole belongs to the category of climate systems that are becoming more frequent as the atmosphere heats up due to human-made climate change.

The Food and Agriculture Organization, which is tasked with monitoring and coordinating the management of locusts, has said that the current plague is challenging to manage due to the remoteness and insecurity of the areas affected. Ethiopia and Somalia are already experiencing the largest locust swarms in 25 years, while Kenya hasn't seen swarms the current size in 70 years.

The way forward: The FAO is seeking $70 million to jumpstart locust management and to assist people's livelihoods in the three countries most affected. But the organization is also warning that Egypt, Eritrea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Yemen are seeing substantial breeding activity and that South Sudan and Uganda are at risk of being impacted by migratory swarms. With only a few countries on that list having the institutional and financial capacity to fend off a plague on their own, the financial need could expand significantly in the coming months.

Ultimately, this plague is as good an example as any for how climate change will manifest itself in Africa and beyond and how it will interact with other dynamics. It underscores how important sufficient funding for the mitigation of climate risks has become and that these risks need to be defined broadly and addressed preemptively as much as possible.