Hunger Hovering By
A swarm of locusts is pushing millions in East Africa to the brink of food insecurity. In Ethiopia alone, over a million people have so far become food insecure and in need of urgent assistance. About 3.5 million quintals of crop has been destroyed by the locust that damaged state and private farms. With predictions the locust attack may increase 400 times in the times ahead, disastrous damages are expected unless preventive measures are taken in time. EBR’s Ashenafi Endale explores.
People of Wochale and Teltele woredas in Borena zone, Southern Oromia Regional State, did not see rain for three years and desert locust for decades. When both appeared simultaneously last year, farmers and pastoralists superstitiously believed the hopper brought them rain. Therefore, they even refused to inform the authorities until it forced them out of their houses.
Getu Gemechu, the Deputy Head of the Oromia Bureau of Agricultural and Natural resources, remarked that over 38 hectares of Maize farm had already been damaged in a kebele of Wochale alone when the chemical spraying aircrafts finally arrived in the area. The desert locust infestation was discovered in Ethiopia after the FAO Desert Locust Information Service issued an early warning in May 2018, exactly when Cyclone Mekunu hit the East coast of Africa on May 25, 2018.
By April 2020, over a million households were affected by the locust. The swarm covered 1.35 million hectares of pastures and 197,163 hectares of cropland, causing a loss of 3.5 million quintals of cereal across Ethiopia up to March, 2020. Moreover, the Ministry of Agriculture (MoA) forecasted that the desert locust will decrease agricultural output in 2020/21 by eight percent, which is close to 26.8 million quintals. That amount could feed 12 million people for one year.
“Considering the huge size of the swarms in the country and their devastating impact on large plant cover, we expected 80 to 100pct damage on the crop. But we are lucky to have received the early warning and started preparation to fight it off crop farms,” said Zebdewos Salato, Plant Health director at MoA.
The desert locust currently spans ten countries from Pakistan to Uganda and Tanzania, including Yemen, Somalia (declared national emergency), Saudi Arabia, Kenya, Djibouti, Eritrea, and Ethiopia. FAO reported that over 13 million people in Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia are experiencing ‘severe acute food insecurity,’ while another 20 million are on the brink of extreme famine. These figures are on top of over 22.8m people in the horn, who were already in need of urgent assistance as a result of consecutive weather-related shocks.
Drought, flash floods, unreliable rain and conflict have cut people’s ability to access food and left them very vulnerable to future shocks. The UN has warned that a food crisis could be looming in East Africa, if the outbreak is not brought under control. The worst of the outbreak may be yet to come. WFP requires USD153 million to control the desert locust, up from USD76 million in March. That figure can go up to one billion dollar, if left unchecked, remarked David Beasley, WFP Executive Director.
Desert locust not only increased the number of food insecure people but also resulted in a spike in food inflation and animal feed price. Consuming seed, selling breeder animals, household assets and houses, migration, borrowing money, begging and other coping strategies are implemented by farmers and pastoralists in locust swarmed areas. Six regions are affected in Ethiopia, with those in the Western part spared. The highest loss in crop was reported in Oromia, at 1.2 million quintals. It is followed by Somali (one million quintals), Tigray (843,241 quintals) and Afar (202,882 quintals).
Locusts are still rampant, stated Getu, despite successful efforts to protect farms. “We established a regional locust control committee and the federal government supplied us resources and equipment. We drove out swarms from Harar, Bale, Arsi and other numerous crop areas. Had we not managed to do that, it could have resulted in total agricultural loss. However, it remained firm in Borena as farmers and pastoralists kept the presence of the locust a secret believing it brought them rain,” he remarked. “If a third wave comes, it will inflict significant loss as most parts of Ethiopia are going into the crop cultivation period for the main farm season,” he added.
This is the largest desert locust infestation in Ethiopia in more than 25 years while the time span rises up to 70 years in the case of Kenya. The size of the locust reached over 300 groups, swarming the Eastern and Southern parts of the country. According to David Phiri, FAO East Africa Coordinator, the locust will increase by 400pct by June 2020, if left unchecked. The coordinator claims that such a situation would cause famine in the horn.
Basically, desert locust stay quiet or in recession, confined in 16 million square kilometer belt of desert extending from Mauritania through the Sahara desert to Northern Africa across the Arabian Peninsula and into North West India. Some generations change to swarms during favorable ecological and climate conditions, invading up to 32 million square kilometers across 60 countries that cover Tanzania, Nigeria, Spain, Russia, and India. It can cover 20Pct of the Earth’s surface.
Historical accounts show desert locust repeatedly attacked particularly Algeria since 1724 when there was no aircraft spraying. International support for Africa to fight locust started only after 1905 by the International Institute of Agriculture. Numerous science researches undertaken since the 1930s recommend killing the locust with pesticide at its breeding area, before it grows to adult.
The largest and most costly desert locust plague in the world hit Ethiopia and Somalia from 1986 to 1989. The worst plague started from the red sea coast of Eritrea and Sudan, an area arguably thought to be one of the top desert locust breeding areas. The 30 years war between Eritrea and Ethiopia that was raging at the time prevented timely intervention, giving ample time for the locust to spread to 23 African and Asian countries in four years. The international community provided USD310 million. However, the desert locust eventually declined mainly because of climatic factors. Another locust invasion in West Africa 15 years ago damaged agricultural produce worth USD2.5 billion.
Desert locust eats two kilograms and flies 150km a day. In a moment, a group of locust can damage food that can feed 2,500 people for a year. It lives three to five months; so, it has four generations a year. The female lays hundreds of eggs in soil of right temperature and proximity. A single swarm has 40 million to 80 million locusts on a square kilometer. Currently, there are tens of billions of locusts in Ethiopia. That number has proved to be dense enough to force Ethiopian aircraft land in Dire Dawa.
The locust spread pattern in Ethiopia is also strongly related to the rainy season and the climatic condition of different places. The breeding time of desert locust is synchronized to the rainy season and three cultivation seasons. Its movement across borders to and from neighboring countries also depends on the rain pattern and cultivation seasons. Furthermore, climate change and increasing cyclones means longer periods of moist sand and vegetation in the desert region, which allows the number of locusts to increase exponentially.
Although the horn of Africa was repeatedly hit by Desert Locust in the past, there is no institutional capacity built in the region to track and control the Desert Locust and rehabilitate affected areas.
The Way Out
The Plant Protection directorate at the MoA is mandated to lead the pest management support service in the country including desert locust. Information exchange mechanisms have been created with regional agriculture heads and clan elders. However, delays in renting spray aircrafts, purchasing chemicals and coordinating regional manpower in 2018, State of Emergency (SoE), and now covid-19 have slowed the locust control effort.
“We are undertaking daily surveillance in addition to soliciting information from local DAs, officials, clan leaders and informants. The burden is on Ethiopia because neighboring countries have lesser capacity. We are also asking IGAD for coordinated surveillance and control in all East African countries,” said Zebdewos.
According to a Locust Response Project document disclosed by the MoA in April 2020, USD63 million is required to fight the desert locust, of which USD43 million is for desert monitoring and control while the rest would be for livelihood protection and restoration.
The MoA deployed six airplanes, three of them rented, for surveillance and spraying chemicals. 41 vehicles are also deployed each day in the swarmed fields. People working in those fields also need allowance and per diem. The Ethiopian government just allocated an additional ETB166 million for locust monitoring and control on top of the ETB120 million utilized so far. The amount covers the cost of aircraft fuel, chemicals, fuel for 41 field vehicles and per diem for field workers. Since December 2018, the MoA has been providing trainings to over 600 focal persons in regional states.
“The money allocated from the government is insignificant compared to the lump fund from the international community, which includes planes, chemicals and even fuel. The total cost of fighting the desert locust is, on the other hand, insignificant compared to the huge fund that could have been required to directly supply food for the affected people, had the locust totally damaged the crops,” added Zebdewos.
FAO recently provided three surveillance and spray aircrafts, in addition to the two it availed earlier. FAO also covers fuel and chemical expenses in some of the cases. COVID-19 impacted efforts to control the spread of the locust. Ethiopia’s effort to import aircraft from South Africa has been delayed because of COVID-19.
Getu also stated that the cost of controlling operations is soaring. “Many experts, officials, vehicles, aircrafts and resources are dedicated only to the locust. This resource and manpower could have done a lot in other developmental endeavors. Farmers also spend time fighting off locust,” he noted. “All in all, the cost we are incurring is high but we are saving our crops. Both the locust and COVID-19 can pose food insecurity. There is coordination inside Ethiopia but the same cannot be said about coordination between neighboring countries,” Getu analyzed.
In Ethiopia, the current effort to reduce the impact of the locust focuses on fighting off the locust from crop areas. Efforts to find breeding areas, known as recession areas, and destroying the locust before it hatches are weak. Plus, the pesticide sprayed on farm areas kills only 50Pct of the locust because strong pesticide could affect crop and people.
There are a number of preventive and controlling mechanisms in eradicating locusts. The reaction method involves protecting crops on an emergency basis amidst a plague, but without going as far as the breeding areas to destroy the locust. Ethiopia is currently employing reaction method; it also used the method during the 1986-1989 plague. Pro-action relies on early detection of bands and swarms, preferably at breeding areas and strategic prepositioning of resources. Prevention mechanism involves destroying the locust as it amasses in its recession. Once it leaves the breading area, it spreads over larger confines and becomes more difficult to control.
For either preventive or proactive control, direct access to breeding areas is essential so that conventional, short-residual pesticides can be applied. According to Alan T. Showler, the major challenges to applying these methods are armed conflict, lack of funding, training, weak regional coordination, remoteness and rugged terrain in breeding areas.
Only a small section of the affected area in ten countries, 240,000 hectares of land, was treated with chemicals until April, 2020. Chemical pesticides, using vehicles, aircrafts and fixed sprinklers, remain the main control agents. Chemicals that can disrupt or manipulate locust behavior can also be used.
Hand-held GPS tools have become critical in accurately tracing, marking and controlling locust with fast moving teams that spray pesticides. Currently, Ethiopia uses information from control centers on the ground to guide pilots. FAO’s Desert Locust Control Guidelines advise more sophisticated approaches: “However, this is not effective. It needs to be replaced with GPS, real time satellite imagery, high frequency radio tools (e-Locust), radar aircraft and drones. Designing other remote sensing mechanisms is critical for physical detection modalities. These tools and operational strategies should be designed to sync with rain and cultivation seasons, which determine the movement of locusts. ”
UNDP and FAO commissioned development of locust data management system and research tool called SWARMS (Schistocerca Warning and Management System) to replace the manual mapping and analysis techniques. SWARMS uses GIS applications. “This can reduce the fuel cost of surveillance aircrafts deployed every day. Finding and destroying the locust at its breeding area also reduces the cost and time it takes to control it once it is on the move.” Real time data and avoiding breakdown in pesticide supply are critical recommendations of the UN. Otherwise, warns FAO, the volume of locust and infestation can grow 400 times by June 2020.
Ethiopia’s preparation for the biggest cultivation season in April and May coincided with the third wave of new generation locusts since 2018.
Zebdewos stressed both COVID-19 and the locust deserve equal attention, locally and internationally. “COVID-19, of course, needs urgent response. But hunger also kills people. Mobilizing resources and manpower, facilitating logistics, controlling locust and re-habilitating affected people need urgent action. The government must start receiving frequent reports both on COVID-19 and desert locust,” he underscored. “A fast SMS platform is also required in surveillance. Especially, regional governments are not active enough in dealing with locusts. Only limited officials and experts at the federal level are in a dedicated active response,” Zebdewos noted.
However, Getu has a different perspective. “As per Malthus theory, food scarcity reduces population. However, I believe the current food insecurity is our opportunity to boost creativity and invention in agriculture,” he argued. He stated that they started providing digital agricultural extension education using television and internet because experts in the extension program cannot go and teach farmers physically under COVID-19. The Oromia agricultural bureau that Getu serves as Deputy Head set out to increase agricultural production in the regional state by 36 million quintals to 198 million quintals for the next harvest season, up from 162 million quintals this year. This year’s output is 48pct of the national output which was 335 million quintals. “We have provided inputs and fertilizer for most of the farmers in the region. We must increase productivity per hectare, since farm area can decline under locust and COVID-19,” remarked Getu.
The region also restarted providing agricultural loans for farmers after it was halted ten years ago. Under the Agricultural Commercialization Cluster (ACC), over two million hectares of small plots are planned to be commercialized during the current cultivation season. Getu stated that they established agri-business departments in all levels of local government ranging from the lowest structure of Kebele to the regional bureau. He pointed out that the move is the first of its kind in the country.
Getu also underscored that land policy remains a bottleneck in all of this. “Most of the agricultural land in the country is owned by elders who are less productive. The youth, which is the productive force, has no means to access land,” he noted. “The existing land modalities need revision to boost agricultural productivity,” Getu concludes. EBR
9th Year • July 1 – July 15 2020 • No. 88