Late last week, the Ministry of Agriculture (MoA) conducted its annual assessment meeting in Asmara, under the theme “Safe and Nutritious Food for Everyone, Everywhere.” At the gathering, led by Arefaine Berhe, the Minister of Agriculture, reports were delivered on progress made in different areas related to food and agriculture during 2023. In addition to updates about various crops, fruits, vegetables, and livestock, and the announcement of the launch of the MoA’s new strategic plan for 2024-2028, brief discussions were held about the threat posed by pests, including desert locusts. Last year saw intensive surveillance activities across a total area of 1.8 million hectares of land, mainly in the Northern Red Sea Region. These efforts helped to successfully contain desert locust infestations across more than 31,000 hectares of land.
Taking off from the recent MoA meeting, the following paragraphs delve a little further into the topic of desert locusts, which have remained a serious problem throughout the Horn of Africa over the past several years.
Understanding the threat posed by the world’s most destructive migratory pest
The desert locust is a type of grasshopper. However, it is far more destructive than the common garden variety, often being described as “the world’s most devastating pest”. Desert locusts have the ability to form swarms, which can be very dense and highly mobile. With favorable winds, they can fly as much as 150km a day. (This mobility helps them to avoid most natural enemies and predators. It also helps explain their movement across the Red Sea.) According to analysts and experts, an adult desert locust can consume its own weight in fresh food per day (that is, approximately several grams), while just one small swarm (approximately 1 km2) has the potential to eat the same amount of crops in one day as about 35,000 people. During quiet periods, which are referred to as “recessions”, desert locusts are generally restricted to semi-arid and arid deserts. This includes parts of about 30 countries within Africa, the Near East, and southwest Asia. However, during upsurges, or what are commonly known as plagues, desert locusts may spread over an enormous area and can reach as many as 60 countries (which collectively represent more than 20 percent of the entire land surface of the world).
Locust swarms can vary in size: ranging anywhere from less than 1km2 to over 1000km2. In each square kilometer of a swarm, there can be between 40 million and sometimes as many as 80 million locust adults. With each individual locust capable of eating its own weight in crops and vegetation each day, it is relatively simple to see how a desert locust invasion can lead to a considerable drop in agricultural and food production, severely damage livelihoods, deplete food stocks, and create significant risks for a population’s food security.
Recent challenges and local efforts to ensure prevention and control
While locusts have been a challenge across the region for centuries, large scale locust invasions have unfolded in recent years across the Greater Horn of Africa. Back towards the end of 2019, a major upsurge of swarms was seen in parts of Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti, Somalia, Kenya, Uganda, South Sudan, and Tanzania.
These swarms were an outgrowth of regional weather patterns during 2018, cyclones in the surrounding region, and particular environmental conditions that provided favorable settings for locusts to thrive and proliferate. According to researchers, the locust invasions in the region during the past years were the worst in several decades, negatively impacting tens of millions of people and with damages and losses totaling billions of dollars.
In Eritrea, desert locusts have been seen in all regions of the country across recent years. For the most part, the swarms have originated from neighboring countries, many of which have been confronted by an array of crises that has made combating locusts even more challenging. According to recent reports from the FAO, the second generation of winter breeding began last week across several countries along the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. Moreover, the threats and challenges posed by desert locusts will persist.
To date, Eritrea has been undertaking different measures to combat the threats posed by desert locusts in order to minimize their negative impact on local communities, farms, livelihoods, and food security in the country. For one, intensive surveillance, regular monitoring, and early warning systems have been established. This includes the FAO-supported eLocust3 system, which gathers and transmits data on locust breeding and movement from “out in the field” directly to the MoA’s Desert Locust Unit in Asmara. Through these various systems, the MoA, local administrations, and the Eritrean Defense Forces (EDF) are able to find and treat locust breeding areas and infestations early. Early and decisive action helps to ensure that young locusts (which are referred to as juvenile locusts or “hoppers”) cannot gather to take flight and prevents the growth and spread of large, uncontrollable swarms.
As well, across the country, the EDF, alongside technical experts from the MoA, are regularly deployed with chemicals and pesticides sprayed from hand-held tanks. Importantly, all those involved receive extensive training at in-depth workshops and are provided with appropriate equipment (such as protective masks, goggles, gloves, boots, and coveralls), ultimately ensuring safety and effectiveness.
In all areas of the country, local communities have also been mobilized in locust control campaigns. It is not uncommon to see entire communities – men, women, and youth of all ages and backgrounds – enthusiastically participating in these campaigns. As well as receiving information, regular updates, early warnings, and general training, community members, with the support of the EDF and local administrations organize themselves into groups and conduct early morning campaigns to apply pesticides. Furthermore, members of farming communities, through the consultation, advice, and assistance of the MoA, often work together to collect their harvests quickly and efficiently, thus keeping production away from hungry locusts and minimizing losses.
Notably, high levels of social cohesion, solidarity, and trust have also regularly been demonstrated in the national fight against desert locusts. When losses do occur, the government has extended various forms of support (such as food, cash handouts, basic items, and other assistance) to vulnerable and affected households. As well, several years ago, after having already donated millions of dollars to support their homeland during the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as support to the families of martyrs, and other health-related initiatives, Eritreans residing overseas established a voluntary national support fund to raise money and resources to help the country combat locusts.
Encouragingly, reports and announcements made by the MoA across recent years have been consistent in stating that damage caused by locusts – to valuable crops, livelihoods, and national food security – has been relatively minimal. This is not only positive and encouraging, but also a powerful testament to the tremendous work, deep commitment, and high-levels of coordination demonstrated by local government administrations, the MoA, and the EDF. It also reflects the great efforts and resilience of local communities.