Swarms of locusts fly above crops in Katitika village, Kenya, on January 24, 2020.
Image: AP

A grim report from the United Nations warns that unusually large swarms of locusts will be descending upon East Africa in the coming months, in what could be the worst infestation in a quarter century. The pests could pose a serious risk to crops and livelihoods in the region.

“The current swarms represent an unprecedented threat to food security and livelihoods in the Horn of Africa,” declares a new report from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). The report goes on to note the swarm could spread, creating apotentially threatening situation is developing along both sides of the Red Sea, where ongoing breeding is causing locust numbers to increase on the coasts of Egypt, Sudan, Eritrea, Saudi Arabia and Yemen.”

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The problem is currently “extremely serious” in Kenya, Ethiopia, and Somalia, where locusts have descended in alarming numbers. The FAO report warns that there’s also a good chance that some swarms could move to northeast Uganda, southeast South Sudan, and southwest Ethiopia. The number of locusts could increase 500-fold by June, reports the BBC. According to FAO, swarms can contain up to 150 million locusts per square kilometer (0.39 square miles).

A single square kilometer filled with locusts can consume as much as 35,000 people in one day, according to the FAO. Adult locusts can eat their own weight—about two grams—of fresh vegetation, and travel upwards of 150 kilometers (93 miles), in a 24 hour period.

Heavy rains in late 2019 are the primary cause for the unusually bountiful locusts. Data from the International Research Institute for Climate and Society show that parts of East Africa and the Sahel region have received as much as 15 inches more rain than normal over the last three months of 2019. Warmer than normal temperatures—one of the hallmarks of climate change—can also play a role in desert locust swarms. The severity of this swarm means mitigation measures and international aid will very likely be needed to address the situation, which could cause increased food insecurity and malnutrition in the affected regions.

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This news couldn’t be worse for a region still recovering from extreme weather. A climate phenomenon known as the Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD) resulted in a warmer western Indian ocean than usual. This meteorological condition makes it more likely for heavy rain and storms to form off the coast of East Africa. And indeed, no less than eight cyclones formed in the basin last year. Mozambique was hit the hardest by Cyclones Idai and Kenneth, which caused widespread flooding. The heavy rains have come after farmers in East Africa deadly with multiple years of drought. That these locusts are now poised to descend upon recovering crops is truly tragic.

Locusts on a tree branch in Katitika village, Kenya, on January 24, 2020.
Image: AP
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Alarming rates of locust egg laying and hatching have been reported in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, giving rise to large groups of the insectoid menace. Swarms are also forming on the Red Sea coast in Yemen, and some locusts were reported in East Africa last month. The ensuing swarms are positioned to be the worst in Ethiopia and Somalia in about 25 years, and the worst in Kenya in 70 years, according to the FAO, and the situation will remain serious until June 2020. The problem could deteriorate even further over the course of the year on account of locusts breeding in Iran, and along the India-Pakistan border.

In its report, the FAO recommends that at-risk countries closely survey and monitor the situation, and that they scale up their aerial control measures, namely spraying insecticides from aircraft. The agency also says countries should provision for food shortages, among other recommendations.

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It could take several years and hundreds of millions of dollars for East Africa to recover from this pending infestation, which could also inflict “severe consequences on food security and livelihoods,” according to the FAO.

Given how 2020 has started, with awful wildfires in Australia and the upsetting Wuhan coronavirus outbreak, a pending crisis of biblical proportions seems unfortunately appropriate.

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George is a senior staff reporter at Gizmodo.

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