Mar 9, 2020 - World

Locust swarms put millions at risk of starvation across Africa and Asia

Photo: Tony Karumba/AFP via Getty Images

In East Africa, the Middle East and South Asia, traveling locust swarms the size of Manhattan are putting potentially hundreds of millions at risk of starvation in what the UN has called the worst outbreak in a quarter of a century.

What it means: "Millions will starve because clouds of approximately 80 million desert locusts per square kilometer are voracious," writes Robert Rotberg, founding director of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Program on Intrastate Conflict.

  • "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."
  • "The United Nations is to test drones equipped with mapping sensors and atomizers to spray pesticides in parts of east Africa battling an invasion of desert locusts that are ravaging crops and exacerbating a hunger crisis."

What's happening: The outbreak had been mostly confined to Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia initially, but the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) says it’s now tracking 15 countries in Africa, the Middle East and South Asia affected by the locusts, Scientific American reports.

  • "The swarms have appeared in a swath hundreds of miles wide, from South Sudan in the west to parts of Pakistan in the east."

What's next: Authorities in East Africa are already undertaking a coordinated campaign of aerial pesticide spraying, "but experts say the scale of the infestation is beyond local capacity as desert locusts can travel up to 150 km (95 miles) in a day," the World Economic Forum notes.

  • This threatens to increase food shortages in a region where up to 25 million people are reeling from three consecutive years of droughts and floods.

Go deeper

Coronavirus hampers efforts to fight locust swarms in East Africa

Cloud of locusts flying in Mwingi North, Kenya, in February. Photo: Fred Mutune/Xinhua via Getty Images

Traveling locust swarms in Africa, the Middle East and South Asia, that had reached the size of Manhattan in some places, are still growing in East Africa, and the problem is now compounded by the coronavirus pandemic.

Driving the news: New cases of coronavirus have been discovered in much of the region this month, and the pandemic also is slowing the delivery of pesticides that can kill the insects.

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Where it stands: South Africa and Egypt are currently two of the worst hot spots for COVID-19 in Africa. 10 people have died from the coronavirus in Egypt as of Saturday. Notably, South Africa has not reported any deaths or recoveries from the virus.

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Several African countries recorded their first coronavirus cases this week, and case numbers accelerated in countries including South Africa, escalating fears that Africa could be the pandemic's next frontier.

Why it matters: While there are still just 600 cases across Africa — fewer than several European countries are recording each day — many countries will find it difficult to control the spread once it begins, or treat those who fall most seriously ill.

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