How climate change has triggered locust plagues across East Africa

Global warming has created the conditions for vast swarms of insects on a scale not seen in living memory. 

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Something substantial hits my helmet visor as I bump along familiar roads on the back of a motorbike taxi to the office one morning. “Oh no,” I think, "they’re here". As it turns out, it was only a flower from one of the many bougainvilleas that line my route to work. But, like many people here in Kenya, I immediately thought “locust”.

A vast swarm of the grasshoppers is heading south through East Africa, and it has reached Kenya. The UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) identified one swarm in Kenya that measured around 2,400 sq km - roughly the size of Luxembourg - and may contain up to 200 billion insects.

In recent months, more than three million people have been affected by flooding in East Africa. With the arrival of locust plagues (the official term), climate change has taken on biblical proportions in this region. For the people who rely on the land for cash and crops, the impact of the swarms will be devastating.

“In one hour, they can destroy everything,” Dennis tells me. “Everyone from home is super worried. They are really near our land.” Dennis is a smallholder farmer from Embu, one of around four to nine million in Kenya (estimates vary widely). These farmers grow crops for subsistence, selling some of their stock at markets when they can. Mostly, however, they grow crops so that they have something to eat. The locusts are putting that at serious risk.

A locust can eat its weight (two grammes) in plants each day. Scaled up to a swarm of 100 billion individuals, this can become millions of tonnes of crops. In Embu, locusts have already destroyed 748 acres of crops and green pastures, according to local reports. They’ve also reportedly eaten their way through another 13,000 sq km of pasture in the nearby Isiolo and Marsabit counties.

Locust plagues occur intermittently, normally every couple of decades, but this is the worst plague East Africa has seen since the late 1980s. Experts have attributed the size of this year's swarms to climatic changes in the region, linked to the Indian Ocean Dipole and unseasonable rains. The additional moisture from the unusually long rains has created exceptional breeding conditions.

“We’ve never had it this bad in my lifetime,” Dennis tells me.”The climate is changing, everyone can see it.”

Dennis farms part-time now. Three nights a week he drives for Uber in Nairobi, and does accounting for a small business in the city during the day. He then drives the 130 km home to his farm in Embu, where he works for the rest of the week. He has committed to this gruelling schedule in recent months to mitigate the losses he’s expecting from his farming, first from the unseasonable rains that have ruined farmers’ planting seasons, and now the ravenous locusts.

“The government needs to take massive action. Now,” Dennis says. But there is no easy fix. Pictures of men, women, and children frantically trying to beat away the swarm with kikoys (a blanket used as a wrap) and hand tools have appeared in the global media. But however hard people try, they will never be a match for the swarm.

The Kenyan government is trying to ship in pesticides to stop the locusts breeding later this month. But Kenya’s principal secretary for agriculture, Hamadi Boga, said the fact that “local companies don’t keep large stocks” of pesticide is slowing progress. Kenya is expecting delivery soon of 1,275 litres of fenitrothion from Tanzania, and another 10,000 litres from Japan, he said on Friday.

Peter Neuenschwander, an expert in locust control at Nigeria's International Institute for Tropical Agriculture, says what the country really needs is Green Muscle, a biopesticide developed after the last major swarm in 1989 that targets locusts without affecting people, other animals or the environment.

But most agree that pesticides are largely ineffective in combatting the swarms themselves. The FAO’s Bukar Tijani acknowledged to regional media last week that the UN’s efforts are now aimed at reducing the impact on food security as “we cannot eradicate locusts.”

According to the FAO, KSh7bn (about $70m) is needed to control the pests in the Horn of Africa, where the food security of 32 million people is at risk. The losses will be huge, and they will be absorbed by some of the region’s most vulnerable.

This is how climate change makes itself felt, as a chain of events. Shifting atmospheric conditions over the Indian Ocean become unusually heavy rain, which becomes swarms, which becomes, to quote the FAO, "an unprecedented threat to food security and livelihoods in the region". WIth new swarms predicted to form in March and April, this is only the beginning.

Mat Hope is an investigative journalist based in Nairbi, Kenya. He writes for the weekly email From a Climate Correspondent, a global look at the effects of climate change, which you can subscribe to here