Dual shock of locust plague and coronavirus spike putting millions at risk of famine in East Africa and Pakistan

The world is reeling from the Covid-19 pandemic, affecting countries rich and poor.  At the same time an old and familiar foe – a locust plague – is devastating areas of Africa and Asia. While media attention and Western resources focus on tackling their own coronavirus crisis, how will these regions’ struggling healthcare systems deal with it?  And what resources will be left to help the victims of the locusts, whose crops have been destroyed, leaving them with the prospect of starvation?

The plague of locusts is breeding at a staggering rate in East Africa and South Asia where crops and livelihoods were devastated by the ravenous insects in the early months of 2020. Many thousands of already marginalised and persecuted Christians are among those facing famine after vast swarms of locusts devoured crops.

Barnabas intervenes

“There is no helping hand for us except God,” Pakistani Christian farmer, Tagji Haloo, told Barnabas. Her family of nine is eating just one simple meal a day. “The unexpected plague of swarms ate up our whole crops and vegetables and left us helpless and depressed with no sources of daily food for our families,” Tagji explained with unspoken grief. “We already got a loan for food needs to be fulfilled, but it is not enough or a sustainable solution for us. Instead it increased our depression and pressure.”

Although they have lost almost everything to the locusts, Tagji and her husband remain hopeful and are preparing to sow new summer crops. Grateful Tagji told us, “God sent us Barnabas Fund for help when no one here to care for us in this time of sorrow. We as family are thankful to Barnabas Fund for their efforts to remember us in this time of unexpected disaster. God bless Barnabas Fund more and more!”

Double-disaster of locusts and coronavirus outbreak in south-west Pakistan

Ideal locust breeding conditions – followed by the terrible spike in coronavirus infections – have deepened the emergency in south-west Pakistan. Thousands of Christian families are facing famine. The locust plague caused catastrophic loss to crops just as they were about to be harvested at the beginning of the year. In Sindh province, one of the poorest rural regions in the country, at least 30,000 acres of crops were ravaged.

Coronavirus infections are rapidly escalating in Pakistan, with 1,938 cases and 26 deaths recorded at the time of writing. Sindh province is badly hit, with cases rocketing as travellers returned across the border from coronavirus-stricken Iran.

A Pakistani Christian farmer in locust afflicted Sindh province

“We as family are thankful to Barnabas Fund for their efforts to remember us in this time of unexpected disaster. God bless Barnabas Fund more and more!” 

Pakistani Christian farmer Tagji

“Share cropper” Pakistani Christian farmers lose precious income

“This was like a flood of locusts, travelling and eating everything on its way,” said Ramoo. The 61-year-old farmer depends on seasonal vegetable and biannual cash crops, including tomatoes and sugar cane, for income to support his family of five, but locusts have destroyed his harvest and wiped out his income. 

Ramoo's household is struggling to survive after the locusts destroyed his crops, just before harvest

Covid-19 crisis heightening threat to food security in locust-affected East Africa

The World Health Organisation (WHO) urged Africa to “wake up” and “prepare for the worst” in the coming months, as a surge of coronavirus cases began across the continent in March. 

Governments were already battling to contain the second wave of locust swarms, and protect critical summer crops, when limited resources suddenly had to stretch to contending with the Covid-19 crisis too. Agricultural regions are now at risk of renewed infestation as coronavirus hampers the fight against locusts, with delays to delivery of pesticides and equipment – heightening the threat to food security at the worst possible time. 

“Extremely alarming” locust swarm surge in East Africa

“These locusts destroy many things. They destroy vegetables leaving people in famine. They are eating grass and leaves which cause the livestock to die, leaving the people without animals, which then cause the people to die,” said Taratam, an 85-year-old Kenyan Christian farmer.

New swarms are swelling quickly and infesting swathes of East Africa with a devastating impact on countries including Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Somalia and South Sudan. The UN has warned of a looming food crisis in the wake of “extremely alarming” locust breeding across the region. The infestation is the worst seen for decades in Somalia, Eritrea and Djibouti, where Christians are already marginalised and persecuted.

The locust swarms are moving faster and further in dry weather conditions, particularly in Kenya and Uganda. In February and March, the eggs were laid in damp conditions ideal for breeding and a massive increase in the locust population is expected as summer approaches. 

[image credit: ©FAO/Sven Torfinn]

[image credit: ©FAO/Sven Torfinn]

[image credit: ©FAO/Sven Torfinn]

Trying desperately to defend her crops as locusts descend in East Africa [image credit: ©FAO/Sven Torfinn]

Critical summer crops at risk

The summer months are expected to bring severe food shortages if staple crops, including maize, are lost. The food security of millions is under threat, especially in Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia and Somalia.

In Uganda, the government has warned the country to prepare for impending double disaster as unusually heavy seasonal rains are expected. A Ugandan Christian leader explained to Barnabas that the severe rains will increase the risks of a locust plague. “Locusts are going to have soft ground under which breeding is going to triple. As locusts increase, the danger towards destruction of both food and pasture will also triple. If there are no measures to mitigate the awaited calamity, people’s lives will get destroyed by hunger,” he warned.

Farmers “lost seeds and hope”

In Marsabit county, Kenya, unusually heavy rains brought flooding last year that wreaked extensive damage. Meanwhile, in semi-arid East Pokot, the rains did not come at all – pastures withered and livestock died. Our partner in the region told us, “Many [farmers] have lost seeds and hope.” Then the locusts invaded, devouring crops and pasture.

Marginalised and persecuted Christians need our help in face of “perfect storm”

Many thousands of already marginalised and persecuted Christians are among those facing a “perfect storm”, as severe food shortages bite due to the vast swarms of locusts and as the coronavirus pandemic sweeps across Africa. The second wave of locusts, which can often be worse than the first, may spiral out of control as government programmes struggle to operate effectively due to pandemic restrictions.

Large-scale food relief is desperately needed to save the lives of many Pakistani and East African Christian families. Widows, orphans, pregnant women, children and elderly are especially vulnerable.

What is the impact of a locust plague?

The desert locust is considered the most dangerous migratory pest on earth. A swarm of only one square kilometre will eat as much as 35,000 people can eat in one day. In times of plague, desert locusts can spread across around 29 million square kilometres or more than 20% of the total land surface of the planet.

Where are the locusts breeding?

Desert locusts are usually restricted to the semi-arid and desert regions of the African Sahel, the Near/Middle East and parts of south-west Asia. This area, of about 16 million square kilometres, comprises around 30 countries, including some of the world’s poorest nations.

A second wave of this year’s devastating locust outbreak is under way in summer breeding grounds in East Africa, parts of the Middle East and south-west Asia. Breeding conditions for the locusts have remained highly favourable since February along both Red Sea coasts and in East Africa. Heavy rains fell in southern Iran spurring egg laying. Western Africa, where dry conditions have dominated, remains largely unaffected by the locust swarms.

Hopper bands (groups of immature insects) and immature swarms multiplied in February and March in Kenya, Somalia, south-west Ethiopia, Sudan, Eritrea, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE. In Iran, many millions of eggs laid by swarms in the south-west hatched to form into hopper bands and, as they mature, adult swarms are crossing the border into Pakistan.

Within south-west Pakistan’s agricultural belt, after extensive egg laying, new generations of hopper bands and small swarms emerged across Baluchistan province in March and April. New swarms are also forming in the north-west of the country.

Please see Christians and the Covid-19 Crisis Article for a map of locust affected regions.

How does a locust plague develop? 

Desert locusts (Schistocerca gregaria) are large grasshopper-like insects. Normally solitary and sedentary, the species morphs into its gregarious form if population density increases. Heavy rainfall in arid regions of the Sahel and North Africa brings rapid growth of lush vegetation for locusts to feed on and increases the risk of swarms developing.

Pakistani Christian farmer Tulsi (pictured with his family) desperately tried to drive the locusts away from his crops, but the insects devoured everything in their path

Within six hours of eggs hatching, if the juvenile locusts are crowded together, a modification of the DNA of their central nervous system occurs, which initiates gregarious behaviour. Solitary insects are green but change to a yellow colour in the gregarious form.

The young locust nymphs march in synchrony as they form dense hopper bands. The hoppers shed their exoskeleton repeatedly as they pass through several growth stages, before maturing into highly-mobile winged adults. Mature swarms, of hundreds of millions of locusts, can migrate distances of around 150km a day, and even 200km when aided by prevailing winds.

The second wave of a locust plague can be many times worse

In the first wave of the current plague, locust swarms were reported to have migrated from the desert of Oman into Yemen and across the Red Sea in late 2019. The swarms spread across East Africa, resulting in the worst outbreak seen in 70 years. Millions of locusts also entered into Pakistan’s agricultural belt, via Iran.

The gregarious phase is transferred from mothers to offspring, which means that the second wave of a plague as is now facing East Africa and south-west Asia can be many times larger than the first. Soft damp soil is especially favourable for egg laying and the rainy season in East Africa provided ideal breeding conditions in many regions.

What control measures are being taken?

Aerial insecticide spraying, mainly with organophosphate chemicals, is the only effective means available to contain such large-scale swarms. The key focus of control operations is to halt the breeding cycle by destroying the hoppers before they mature into adults.

The traditional and manual control methods used in many regions, such as pesticide spraying by hand and ground clearing, are almost useless in the face of an infestation so huge that few farmers have seen in their lifetimes.

Pakistani Christian farmer, Tulsi, explained to Barnabas how he struggled in vain to protect his crops. “We used drums (dhool), and other noisy sounds to get rid from those insects, but before leaving there was only straw in field but no leaves. Even in the areas where the rice crop was about to be harvested, were severely damaged,” he said.

Control relies on careful monitoring of breeding zones

Ground monitoring to identify breeding zones at an early stage is critical, so that governments can effectively target aerial spraying. Scientists are using supercomputers and climate data to predict where and when egg laying and breeding surges will occur. 

The cost of effectively controlling the plague is estimated to be around $60m (£47m). If the current breeding upsurge is not contained, costs could soar to as high as $500m (£393m).

The last locust plague, in 2003, which affected 23 West African countries, involved three generations of locusts and took two years to bring under control.

If you would like to make a gift, please direct your donation to 00-1313 Project Joseph Feeding Locust-affected Christians

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