Outbreak of Locusts in Somalia Predicted to be Worse in 2021In the past several decades, Somalia has faced a variety of challenges, including foreign imperialism, religious extremism and a struggling infrastructure system. Literacy and education have long been areas of concern, as has access to food, water and healthcare. In 1991, President Muhammed Siad Barre was overthrown, and the country descended into civil war with various political and military factions vying for control of the country. Peacekeeping groups from the U.S. and the United Nations attempted to restore a central government and restrain violence, but they were met with opposition and eventually left, unsuccessful, in 1993.

A Destabilized Country and Poverty

There have since been many attempts to create a functioning national government, but for years progress stalled. The Islamic extremist group Al-Shabab gained momentum in the mid-2000s, causing huge amounts of violence and destruction in the region. They attacked national infrastructure, and at various points forced agencies who had been providing aid to withdraw. These tactics caused thousands to die, displaced thousands more and destroyed access to healthcare and education for many.

Human Rights Watch estimated in 2018 that over 2.5 million people were internally displaced, and agencies providing relief faced continued attacks and the inability to access those who need help. According to the World Bank, the poverty rate in Somalia today is roughly 70%, and “almost nine of 10 Somali households are deprived of at least one fundamental dimension: access to income, electricity, education or water and sanitation.” Life expectancy is low as well, figured to be roughly 53 years for men and 57 for women. These issues are both caused and compounded by the constant violence; the civil war deprived many of access to necessities like food and housing, and it continues to be a daily worry even with other equally pressing needs.

Locusts and Food Security

It is against this backdrop that Somalia is currently dealing with a plague of epic proportions. Every year, there is an outbreak of locusts in Somalia and neighboring countries, and locals are accustomed to their presence on some level. However, 2020 is entirely different: Warming temperatures and increased flooding over the last several years created ideal conditions for locusts to breed and reproduce, leading to two separate waves of locusts this year alone. By all accounts, this invasion is the worst in 25 years, decimating a country that was already ill-equipped to deal with a disaster.

The first infestation of locusts in Somalia numbered in the hundreds of billions, blotting out the sky and destroying crops, farmland and any other vegetation they found. The second was even more devastating—trillions of locusts descended on East Africa and wiped out any chance of a successful harvest. The LA Times reports, “In a single day, a swarm can travel nearly 100 miles and eat its own weight in leaves, seeds, fruits and vegetables—as much as 35,000 people would consume. A typical swarm can stretch over 30 square miles.” It is nearly impossible to deal with them individually, and a lack of centralized response has left farmers to fend for themselves in an attempt to mitigate economic loss and save what they can of the most recent crop yield.

These waves of locusts ruined economic prospects for many Somali citizens, and left many in debt, unable to sell their harvest or participate in the local economy. The U.N. Food and Agriculture division estimates that 100% of sorghum and maize—both vital to the Somali economy—were affected or harmed by the infestation. Experts also worry that they will return in the spring of 2021 if allowed to continue breeding and growing to maturity unchecked. The unprecedented quantities this year make it difficult to contain, and there is now only a short window in which to act. Avoiding another round will require a timely and focused response.

Moving Forward

The good news is that there are tangible solutions, and possibilities remain for Somalia to revitalize their economy and recover from this devastation. Pesticides are proven to contain the insects, and the challenge now is to deploy them in high enough quantities that it might have a tangible effect. Currently, Somalia lacks the political will and infrastructure to supply enough planes to be useful, but the U.N. FAO has been meeting with both West African and European countries in an attempt to gather the resources necessary to fight the locusts.

Scientists have been working to develop a worthy biopesticide over the past decade, and there is now a working product that’s “cheaper, more effective, longer-lasting in the desert and easier to store,” according to Science Magazine. Somali politicians and leading experts in the field from around the world have been working to provide relief, and although locusts in Somalia have not been seen like this in many years, there are reasons to be hopeful, given the scenario. If aerial spraying becomes financially viable and available, it could provide significant relief and a renewed opportunity for those who have been affected.

One FAO official commented, “We’re already partnering with NASA, with NOAA, with the European Space Agency, with Cambridge University… all of these different entities have their own expertise.” Ultimately, a solution to locusts in Somalia is within reach—and it requires a combination of pesticides, more accurate predictors of future outbreaks and cheaper methods of delivery for needed chemicals. If this can be achieved, it would be critical in the fight for food and job security in the country, allowing the economy to flourish and crops to grow.

– Leo Posel
Photo: Flickr