Desert Locust swarms in Kenya. Credit: FAO

The UN is Warning of a Massive Crisis as Desert Locusts Ravage East Africa

Desert locusts are killing crops across East Africa and in so doing, threatening the food supply of millions of people.

On Tuesday, three top United Nations officials issued a joint public statement urging governments around the world to treat this desert locust crisis as a major humanitarian-emergency-in-the-making. The infestation is already the worst in decades and without $138 million in urgent funding for remediation efforts like aerial spraying, swarms could spread out of control and plunge region into a deep hunger crisis.

The UN’s top emergency relief coordinator Mark Lowcock, the executive director of the World Food Programme David Beasely, and the head of the Food and Agriculture Organization Qu Dongyu warned that they were in a “race against time” to stop the locusts from eating their way through crops that feed millions of people in countries that are already profoundly food insecure.

East Africa is a region beset by climate- and conflict-related shocks. Millions of people are already acutely food insecure. Now they face another major hunger threat in the form of desert locusts.

 The locust upsurge affecting East Africa is a graphic and shocking reminder of this region’s vulnerability. This is a scourge of biblical proportions. Yet as ancient as this scourge is, its scale today is unprecedented in modern times.

 On 20 January, FAO called for $76 million to help combat this pest crisis. But the resources to control the outbreak have been too slow in coming.

Since FAO launched its first appeal to help what was then three affected countries, the locust swarms have moved rapidly across vast distances and the full extent of their massive scale has become clear. Since our last op-ed pleading for action on 12 February, swarms have been sighted in Djibouti, Eritrea, South Sudan, Uganda and Tanzania.

 Each day, more countries are affected. Last week, a swarm crossed into one of Africa’s most food-insecure and fragile countries, South Sudan. Just this week, it was confirmed that one swarm reached the eastern boundaries of the Democratic Republic of the Congo – a country that has not seen a locust incursion since 1944. Needless to say, the potential impact of locusts on a country still grappling with complex conflict, Ebola and measles outbreaks, high levels of displacement, and chronic food insecurity would be devastating.

 As the locusts continue their invasion throughout eastern Africa, and more details emerge about the scale of need in affected areas, the cost of action has already doubled, to $138 million. FAO urgently needs this money to help Governments control these devastating pests, especially in the next four months.

 This funding will ensure that activities to control the locusts can take place before new swarms emerge. It will also provide help for people whose crops or pastures are already affected, to protect their families and their livelihoods.

 Desert locusts have a reproduction cycle of three months. Today, mature swarms are laying eggs within vast areas of Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia, many of which are already hatching. In just a few weeks, the next generation of the pests will transition from their juvenile stage and take wing in a renewed frenzy of destructive swarm activity. This will be just as farmers’ crops begin to sprout. The next wave of locusts could devastate East Africa’s most important crop of the year, right when it is at its most vulnerable.

But that doesn’t have to happen. The window of opportunity is still open. The time to act is now.

 Anticipatory action to control and contain the locusts before the new swarms take flight and farmers crops first break soil is critical. At the same time, FAO needs more resources to immediately begin boosting the resilience of affected communities so they can better withstand some inevitable shocks. Acting now to avert a food crisis is a more humane, effective and cost-efficient approach than responding to the aftermath of disaster.

We welcome the response so far from many international donors. To date, $33 million has been received or committed. But the funding gaps are clear, and needs are growing too rapidly. We need to do more. WFP has estimated the cost of responding to the impact of locusts on food security alone to be at least 15 times higher than the cost of preventing the spread now.

It is time for the international community to act more decisively. The math is clear, as is our moral obligation. Pay a little now, or pay a lot more later.

This region of Africa has experienced desert locust infestations before–but nothing on this scale in recent times. This is the worst locust swarm Somalia and Ethiopia have seen in 25 years. In Kenya and Uganda, it’s the worst in 70 years. 

The Trump Administration is Refusing to Pay the UN Food and Agriculture Organization

The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization is the lead international organization that is coordinating and implementing strategies to stave off this crisis. It urgently needs funds to conduct the aerial spraying required to confront the spread of desert locusts — before April. But the agency’s top funder,  the United States, is deep in arrears. The U.S. is responsible for 22% of the FAO’s regular budget, amounting to about about $113 million. The United States Congress has already appropriated the funds. But so far, the Trump administration is sitting on most of the money, refusing to actually obligate it. In fact, since 2018, the Trump administration has racked up huge arrears to the Food and Agriculture Organization to the tune of around $70 million.

Again, this is not because Congress did not appropriate the funds–it did. Rather it’s because the Trump administration has been exceedingly slow in disbursing those funds, a pattern that is seen across several UN agencies, including the World Health Organization and UNICEF.

The fact that the FAO’s top funder is so deep in arrears could complicate the FAO’s effort to contain this plague of locusts.  The FAO has warned that if their $138 million request is not met by April, the cost of containing the spread will increase exponentially. The reason for this is mostly biological–a new generation of locusts will soon be hatching, and they will be hungry.

The good news is that the FAO is not yet warning that food shortages caused by such massive crop destruction will cause famine. There is still time to avert this worst-case-scenario. But absent a robust response to this $138 million emergency funding appeal, a far more costlier relief effort will be required to stave off famine and widespread hunger.

So far, though, this crisis has not inspired the Trump administration to pay the FAO money that Congress appropriated and this emergency requires.