- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Farmers in the Horn of Africa are witnessing a “crisis within a crisis” as the largest infestation of locusts in a generation or more combines with a deadly virus never before seen in history, regional specialists warned Wednesday.

Billions of desert locusts pose a severe threat to vulnerable populations in East Africa and beyond, health officials warn, threatening food stocks and livelihoods just as the coronavirus pandemic appears set to peak.

Vast swarms of desert locusts speckle the plains of the region, threatening populations in Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia, Yemen and Sudan. The locust outbreak is the worst Kenya has seen in 70 years, and the worst Somalia and Ethiopia have seen a quarter-century.

“The current situation in East Africa remains alarming as swarms continue to mature. … The threat to food security is there and remains high,” Dominique Burgeon, a director within the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) said Wednesday.

Mr. Burgeon appeared with other officials on a telebriefing on the locust crisis hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies on Wednesday.

With the threat from COVID-19 building, said Matt Nims, deputy director of USAID’s Office of Food for Peace, “everyone is going have to try to balance what is important. … I think that [we need to] continue essential humanitarian operations [while] looking broadly to include nutrition, locusts, [and] feeding that is already going on — how do we operate within that dynamic of COVID-19?”

The desert locust, a migratory winged grasshopper, can travel hundreds of miles a day while devouring fields of crops in mere minutes. In a single day, a swarm of locusts can destroy enough crops to feed 2,500 people for an entire year.

Coupled with the virus pandemic, an estimated 73 million people across Africa are facing acute food insecurity. Public health experts worry mass infection and widespread crop destruction could have lasting repercussions.

An upsurge in cyclone frequency in 2018 and 2019 created the perfect breeding ground for the desert locust, and farmers have been waging an uphill battle after locust populations initially appeared in the region in May 2018, Mr. Burgeon said.

Thriving in the wet conditions, the locust population breeds and hatches new eggs every three months, doubling the total population quarterly.

While maintaining communication with governments across East Africa, the FAO is assisting local farmers with ground and aerial spraying meant to diminish locust populations. The FAO has also developed an aerial surveillance system across the region to track the swarms.

But the presence of COVID-19 in the region is making efforts more difficult, as travel restrictions and social distancing measures limit movement and contact.

Despite restrictions, Mr. Burgeon said locusts must remain a priority and aid organizations should find new ways to “remain very vigilant and beef up interventions.”

In April, the U.N. more than doubled its aid request from $70 million to $153 million to fight the locust spread, particularly in Sudan. The grant will allow them to continue ground operations and offer aid packages to farmers who have lost crops.

As farmers continue to prepare for the upcoming harvest in June and July, they fear a resurgence in the population of locusts. In response, many Kenyan farmers have chosen to lower their investment into farms this year, a move which threatens to have long-term repercussions on supply chains and profit.

“Uncertainty in an agriculture supply chain can really be contagious, so when farmers experience uncertainty in one season and that affects their investment decisions and their income, whether you are directly impacted by locusts or not, you might realize a small profit that year,” said Stephanie Hanson, senior vice president of One Acre Fund, a nonprofit that supports Kenyan farmers.

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