East Africa plagued by locust risk

East Africa could suffer a drop in GDP growth because swarms of locust have been devastating crops in countries in Africa including Ethiopia and parts of Kenya and Uganda, according the ratings agency Fitch.

The swarms are the worst seen in the region for 17 years and have their origin in heavy rains that hit the Arabian Peninsula in 2018 – enriching the insect’s breeding grounds and leading to an explosion in numbers, according to the agency.  

“Our current growth outlook in the region is dominated by the impact of COVID-19, which will see growth slowing by an average of 4.8 per cent in 2020 as well as widening fiscal balances and increasing external pressures, and the locust invasion could exacerbate these pressures,” it said in its research note. Supply chains could also be affected in the region.

Voracious eaters

“In Ethiopia the voracious insects may drive up food prices, accelerating consumer inflation that is already running at about 20% a year,” the Economist magazine said.

Locusts are a type of grasshopper called Acrididae. The Desert Locust (Schistocerca gregaria), found in various parts of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, is considered the most destructive migratory pest in the world because they are highly mobile and can form swarms containing millions of locusts, leading to devastating impacts on crops, pasture and fodder, according to the World Bank. 

A small swarm (1 km2) can be made up of 80 million locusts and can consume the same amount of food in one day as 35,000 people. A large swarm can eat up to 1.8 million metric tons of green vegetation, equivalent to food enough to feed 81 million people. Locusts breed very fast and— a single female locust can lay egg pods containing anywhere from 80- 150 eggs. Locusts do not attack people or animals.

The World Bank has approved a $500 million aid package to help families keep food on their tables.

Climate risk and warning systems

Not all of the money will go on mitigating the immediate risk of famine. “Follow up actions will focus on rehabilitating food production and livelihood systems to get communities back on their feet, while strengthening national surveillance and early warning systems to mitigate the threat of future outbreaks,” said the bank.

The early detection systems are seen as particularly important given that climate change in the region is likely to lead to greater rainfall – conditions that are ideal for locusts to breed in. Combating the swarms depends on early detection and extensive crop spraying to destroy the insects. Without an effective early warning system in future, such outbreaks could become the norm.

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