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Desert locust outbreak

How manageable risks spin out of control

Locust infestations have been considered a pest since antiquity, but in the past 120 years humans have generally become much better at managing locusts, having learned how to contain them before they turn into large infestations.

However, despite having this knowledge, we frequently still fail at locust management. Starting in 2018, a series of unfortunate events unfolded that led to this opportunity being missed, allowing swarms of desert locusts to form and spread across 23 countries on multiple continents between 2019 and 2021, devouring their weight in vegetation every day. Desert locusts destroy vegetation extremely rapidly: a swarm covering 1 km² consumes as much food as 35,000 people in one day, and these swarms were often much larger. One mega-swarm alone, measured in Kenya in 2020, was the size of the country of Luxembourg.

Key Facts

42 million

people at risk of food insecurity

23 countries in total

Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, South Sudan, Uganda, Tanzania most strongly affected

Key numbers:

$312 million

request from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in funding to fight the outbreak

2 million ha

of land in 10 countries targeted for treatment in 2020 and 2021

It began with climate change and a series of cyclones that created favourable conditions for locust breeding in the Arabian Peninsula. Political conflict and insecurity in Yemen, and later in the course of the outbreak in Somalia, rendered some breeding areas inaccessible even after they had been identified, such that the initial outbreak was not curbed. The ongoing cyclones with their strong winds subsequently supported the migration of swarms far into Africa and Southeast Asia, where the locusts not only destroyed crops, but also fodder for farm animals to the point of leading to the starvation of animals. Ultimately, the large-scale vegetation loss directly threatened the livelihoods and nutrition of an estimated 42 million people already at risk from food insecurity.

Wider Picture

Wider context

Food insecurity, poverty and a comparatively high level of dependence on subsistence agriculture make the population of the most affected countries particularly vulnerable to crop losses, and lack of government funds and capacities hinder the implementation of adequate locust management.

Future context

Given their cyclic recurrence, desert locust outbreaks will continue to be a hazard in the future, and may become more frequent and severe as climatic changes, including ocean warming, foster weather conditions that are favourable for swarm emergence.

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Missing crucial intervention points due to regional and local barriers to management led to 23 countries facing serious impacts over food security and livelihoods. Climate change predictions indicate that conditions favouring desert locust outbreaks will likely occur more frequently in the future.