Heavy rains contribute to Desert Locust crisis in East Africa

Source(s): World Meteorological Organization (WMO)

Unusual weather and climate conditions, including widespread and heavy rains since October 2019, have contributed to a serious and widespread Desert locust outbreak, which is threatening rural food security and livelihoods across East Africa.

Large and numerous swarms continue to destroy crops and pastures across parts of Ethiopia, Somalia, and Kenya. Locust breeding and movements are taking place also in Djibouti, Eritrea and Sudan. There is a high risk that swarms could appear in northeast Uganda, southeast South Sudan and southwest Ethiopia. The high risk of further spread in the East Africa region necessitates an immediate and significant intensification of control activities.
This is the worst Desert Locust situation in 25 years for most of the affected countries – for Kenya, in 70 yearsaccording to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). Unusual weather and climate conditions have contributed to the spread, including heavy and widespread rains since October 2019. A further increase in locust swarms is likely to continue until June due to the continuation of favourable ecological conditions for Desert Locust breeding.

David Phiri, FAO Subregional Coordinator for Eastern Africa and Representative to the African Union and the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa warned: “We must act immediately and at scale to combat and contain this invasion.  As the rains start in March there will be a new wave of locust breeding. Now is therefore the best time to control the swarms and safeguard people’s livelihoods and food security, and avert further worsening of the food crisis”. 
According to the Food Security and Nutrition Working Group (FSNWG) most recent update, the East Africa region is already experiencing a high degree of food insecurity, with over 19 million people coping with Crisis (IPC Phase 3) or higher levels of hunger. Under a worst-case scenario, where the current locust upsurge is not quickly contained and becomes a plague by the next main cropping season, significant crop and pasture losses would cause food security in affected areas to worsen further.

The group, currently co-chaired by FAO and the IGAD Climate Prediction & Applications Centre (ICPAC), urged countries to take immediate action to control the outbreak and held a news conference in Nairobi, Kenya on 24 January, to provide an update about the situtation.

The Desert Locust outbreak is destroying crops and pasture across eastern Ethiopia and neighbouring areas of Somalia, parts of Sudan, Eritrea and northern Kenya with a high risk of further spread in the absence of immediate and significant scale up in control activities. 

There is a risk that some swarms could appear in northeast Uganda, southeast South Sudan and southwest Ethiopia.  A further increase in locust swarms is likely to continue until about June due to the continuation of favourable ecological conditions for locust breeding. 

“The Desert Locust outbreak was clearly worsened by the unusually heavy rains experienced in the region. This has been a year of extremes and climate anomalies for East Africa, a region that hosts some of the most vulnerable populations of the world. 2019 brought us unusual cyclonic activity - 8 cyclones, the highest number in a single year since 1976, forming over the northern Indian Ocean -, droughts, floods and a desert locust outbreak. Our Climate is changing and it is already leading to hundreds of casualties and affecting the livelihoods of millions of people in our region” says Guleid Artan, Director of ICPAC. ICPAC is a WMO Regional Climate Centre.

WMO and FAO have worked together for many years on the Desert Locust issue.   

WMO encourages NMHS in the impacted region to assist with providing data and forecasts to the national Desert Locust Control Units.  FAO uses the WMO Global Observing System as input to the Desert Locust Information Unit along with information from other sources.

Forecasts of heavy rain, including forecasts of tropical cyclones making landfall in desert areas, from WMO members provide important information to National Locust Control Centres (NLCC)  for their monitoring and control efforts.  Heavy rain triggers growth of vegetation in arid areas where Desert Locusts can then develop and reproduce. 

Meteorologists from WMO Members have since been involved in national Desert Locust programmes.. FAO is the lead agency in Desert Locust monitoring and control and runs the Desert Locust Information Service (DLIS).   In 2016, FAO and WMO jointly produced the "Weather and Desert Locust" publication provides an overview of Desert Locust lifecycle and which weather parameters are needed for

Desert Locust monitoring and control.

Some recommendations for countries include:

  • Establishing a national task force during locust emergencies that includes National Locust Control Centres (NLCC) , NMHSs, and plant protection agencies;

  • Encouraging discussions on formal roles and frameworks;

  • Establish briefings between NMHSs and NLCCs

  • Develop mechanisms to ensure close collaboration, not only during locust emergencies, but also during quiet periods;   

The Desert Locust is the most dangerous of the nearly one dozen species of locusts. It is normally present in the desert areas across 20 countries between West Africa and India, covering nearly 16 million square kilometers. Green vegetation and moist sandy soils are favored for breeding. A typical desert locust swarm can contain up to 150 million locusts per square kilometer. Swarms migrate with the wind and can cover 100 to 150 kilometers in a day. An average swarm can destroy as much food crops in a day as is sufficient to feed 2,500 people and pasture biomass. 

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