A crisis within a crisis - Locust swarms amid a global pandemic

On 29 April the CSIS hosted a webinar with the Food and Agriculture Organisation’s North America on the topic of ‘Mitigating the Desert Locust Infestation amid the COVID-19 Pandemic’. Experts from USAID, the One Acre Fund and the Regional Desert Locust Alliance joined this online event to provide a snapshot  of the desert locust infestation in Africa, happening alongside COVID-19. This is a summary of the conversation, covering the significance of this outbreak, current mitigating actions and what needs to be done to safeguard livelihoods and food security.

The evolution of the 2020 locust swarms 

Early in 2019, locusts – common in the ‘empty quarter’ of the Arabian Peninsula – began spreading further afield to Yemen, Saudi Arabia and then Iran. Ideal breeding conditions in Yemen allowed for another generation of locusts to form: for every one female locust, about 20 new locusts survive to create the next generation. Their growth, therefore, is exponential. After three months, swarms grow 20 fold; after six months, swarms will have increased by 400 times; by 8000 after nine months and soon they turn into billions. In the summer of 2019, locusts began moving towards Ethiopia and Northern Somalia. 

Cyclone Taiwan hit the region in December 2019, bringing large quantities of rain – ideal breeding conditions leading to the outbreak of locusts infestations in Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia. The summer season usually dries out locusts and helps regulate the numbers. However, this rainfall counteracted many of the operational prevention efforts and have instead supported breeding conditions for swarms, and the situation is now worse than expected. The situation prompted FAO to issue a $76 million appeal in early 2020

Overview of the 2019-2020 Desert Locust Upsurge, FAO
Overview of the 2019-2020 Desert Locust upsurge, FAO 

Find a detailed brief on the movement and evolution of the desert locusts crisis here. 

Why the grave concern? 

The Global Report on Food Crises 2020 underlines that 135 million people face acute food insecurity, of which 20% live in East Africa. This makes the Horn of Africa extremely vulnerable to any disruption in food security and livelihoods, largely because of recent droughts, floods and armed conflicts: and now they face the challenges of COVID-19 and desert locusts.  

The threat of locusts can potentially drive millions more into extreme hunger and food insecurity. An average swarm of locusts covers a 120 mile area, destroying crops sufficient to feed 2,500 people for a whole year. Some reach the size of Moscow, and in one day can consume enough food to feed 35,000 people. Locusts also attack livestock, or more specifically the body condition of these animals, thus threatening the nutrition security of the communities that rely on them. While pastoralists can be mobile to protect livestock from locust swarms, movement of livestocks risks local conflict and unrest between communities.This is additional to the threat of COVID-19: the World Food Programme (WFP) predicts that the number of those at risk of extreme hunger could double before the end of 2020. 

Desert locusts stand on the local vegetation. ©FAO/Sven Torfinn
Desert locusts stand on the local vegetation. ©FAO/Sven Torfinn 


Moreover, these swarms are invading countries which are ill equipped to deal with locusts, notably lacking experience and ‘know how’ to respond. Kenya has not experienced locust swarms on this scale in 70 years, and Ethiopia in 25 years. Additionally, global concerns around COVID-19 have led to shifts in the global humanitarian arena, dominating governments’ agendas and the media. Thus, the desert locust crisis is going largely unnoticed. 

The second generation of locusts have begun hatching and are thus already impacting the planting season. The currently favourable weather forecast for breeding – warm and moist – means we can expect a third generation to hit the harvesting season at the end of June and the beginning of July. This will be catastrophic for food supply and production in a region already experiencing food price increases. Furthermore, ideal breeding conditions in Iran are putting Pakistan and India at increasing risk too. Meanwhile, Sudan is at high and immediate risk of a locust infestation, which, if it materialises, will increase the threat to West (and the whole of) Africa.

What is being done

Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) is basing its response on recommendations learnt from the 2003-05 locust upsurge with the adoption of a two track approach: control operations and operations to safeguard livelihoods. 

  • The control operations include:

  • Livelihood safeguarding operations include:

    • Providing affected growers with farming packages to try and boost production.

    • Veterinary care for livestock. 

    • Support to farmers and pastoralists with cash intervention so they can purchase food. 

FAO is also helping governments and other partners with monitoring and surveillance and coordination assistance during control operations. At a grassroots level, the Organisation is maintaining the flow of inputs and equipment to communities on the ground, overcoming some delays due to COVID-19. 

The FAO has started training 300 National Youth Service (NYS) trainees as part of its action plan to boost the Government of Kenya’s surveillance and control of the worst desert locust invasion the country has seen in 70 years. ©FAO/Luis Tato
The FAO has started training 300 National Youth Service (NYS) trainees as part of its action plan to boost the Government of Kenya’s surveillance and control of the worst desert locust invasion the country has seen in 70 years. ©FAO/Luis Tato


The One Acre Fund is working with small-scale farmers on the ground in Kenya. Liaising with their network of farmers and field staff, they are trying to track and monitor the impacts of locusts. Farmers are reducing their risk exposure to the locust outbreak by spending less on seeds and fertilisers for this year, however there is very little individual farmers can do. 

USAID have donated about $20 million to FAO efforts on regional control in the most severe areas. This is also helping to fund training in pesticide equipment use and the adoption of radio GPS. 

The Regional Desert Locust Alliance (RDLA) was launched earlier this year: a group of 30 organisations operating in the Horn of Africa to enact greater coordination and collaboration for more targeted work and to fill in the gaps, especially in areas of food security and livelihoods. They have created a mapping exercise across the region to show what different member organisations are doing, in order to create a coordinated, targeted and harmonised response. This is to help understand who is working on what and where the gaps for work are. They are also carrying out livestock monitoring and tracking where the locusts are moving. 

What needs to be done

  • More funding is required: FAO recently scaled up its Desert Locust appeal to $153.2 million. The control operation side of the fund is better funded than the livelihood safeguarding side with more than $100 million needed for the livelihood fund on top of the existing funding gap. 

  • Borders and travel restrictions must not prevent the movement of vital workers; for example, pilots for large-scale spraying, technical staff to help with pesticide use. 

  • Communication is crucial, agree the board of experts. 

  • The RDLA stresses the need to be early in response to food security and livelihoods; keep action coordinated between organisations so their work can be mobilised efficiently and effectively. 

  • Digitalisation: important for research as well as updating and relaying information to the people on the ground. 

  • The One Acre Fund highlights that when farmers experience risk and uncertainty, their investment decisions are impacted. Remittances must not be reduced as it is important that farmers are able to and do invest in their livelihoods for long-term resilience, especially as the region will continue to be vulnerable to conflicts, floods, and wider effects of climate change.