The locust swarms currently plaguing our nation pose an unprecedented threat to food security and livelihoods. It’s the worst desert locust outbreak India has witnessed in 27 years, and could leave lakhs of Indians struggling to feed themselves in the coming months because of the double threat of coronavirus.
Locust swarms have already destroyed vegetation and crops on 50,000 hectares of land in Gujarat, Rajasthan, Punjab, UP and MP and have made their way to Maharashtra’s Vidarbha region where they are chomping down fruit orchards at record speed.
Aerial and ground operations by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) are underway but remain insufficient due to the size of the swarms. The Government of India is conducting a locust response and will also take lead in the assessments to establish loss and damage of crops, vegetation which will then inform a way forward.
Locusts are notorious for mass breeding and favourable weather conditions forecasted over the coming months will enable further reproduction and movement of this pestilence. This could result in an increase of locusts even if large-scale control measures are deployed.
Food security and livelihoods in East Africa
In Somalia, over 70,000 hectares of cropland has been damaged with the swarm migrating to the southern crop-producing areas, In Kenya, 13 counties are now affected threatening pastoral areas and marginal agricultural areas. The desert invasion has affected over 65,000 hectares of land across different parts of Ethiopia.
FAO also has warned that sustained desert locust reproduction over the next 3-5 months will likely spread to Southern Ethiopia, Southern Somalia, North-eastern Uganda and South Sudan as a result of high soil moisture, wind patterns and above normal vegetation, which has created pretty cosy conditions for locusts to breed. Some experts are predicting a Desert Locust plague of biblical proportions.
The last major Desert Locust Plague affected 43 countries more than 35 years ago. It arose from widespread heavy rains that fell in Western Sahara in the late summer of 1986. The plague finally ended in 1989 because of control operations and unusual winds that blew swarms across the Atlantic Ocean.
What caused the locust outbreak?
The breeding and spreading of the locusts in early to mid-2020 could lead to adverse impacts on cropping and vegetation conditions in the next harvesting season, especially in the insecure areas where aerial spraying is not possible.
The locust swarms you are seeing in the shocking videos circulating on Whatsapp came to India from the dry regions of Iran and Balochistan in Pakistan. Brace yourself for larger, bubonic-level swarms of desert locusts coming all the way from the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. It all started in 2018 when two cyclones made the weather go awry and led to heavy downpours in those regions. Heavy rain in arid regions triggers vegetation growth, creating the perfect breeding ground for desert locusts.
The story continued into 2019 when the warming of the Indian Ocean led to a whopping eight cyclones of varying severity within a year. These cyclones in turns led to one of the wettest October-December monsoons in many parts of East Africa. Naturally, the outcome was more locusts than the previous year, with their exponential population in 2020. According to recent research, these kinds of events could double in number if the global temperature continues to rise.
What’s next for India?
Besides affecting food security and livelihoods of people in rural areas, and shortage in food grains and vegetables, the locust outbreak means more economic trouble for India as it tries to recover from the pandemic. It is time to begin implementing measures for protecting livelihoods and work on preventing future food crises. This means more animal health campaigns, keeping livestock healthy where pastures have been destroyed, and relief packages for affected farmers so that they can replant.