By Mark Michael
A group of seven Anglican archbishops, mostly from Eastern and Central Africa, are appealing to fellow Anglicans for assistance in dealing with a plague of ravenous locusts that threatens to destroy crops across their region, as well as in Iran and Pakistan. The primates of the Anglican Churches of Kenya, Uganda, Congo, and Rwanda were joined by GAFCON General Secretary Ben Kwashi and George Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, in announcing the appeal, which is being coordinated by the Barnabas Fund, a Christian aid agency based in the UK.
The United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization warns that the food insecurity of 25 million people across Africa and Southwestern Asia could be endangered by the locust swarms, which had been spotted in 10 countries as of March 10. The insects originated in the “Empty Quarter,” a stateless desert region between Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Oman in 2018. Since then, they have been multiplying and gradually spreading east into Iran and Pakistan, and west into the Horn of Africa and Kenya.
The archbishops’ letter said that devastating food shortages were emerging in the Pokot region of Northwestern Kenya, where the locusts arrived on the heels of devastating floods and landslides last November that significantly damaged growing crops. The harvest season for the East Africa’s crucial maize crop is March and April, and UN officials are noting a “significant and dangerous upsurge” in breeding activity among the insects across Ethiopia, Somalia, and Kenya.
The Barnabas Fund also reports that some of the same regions hardest hit by the locusts are now facing growth in cases of coronavirus infection. The situation has been especially severe in the Sindh region of Pakistan, near the Iranian border. There were 394 COVID-19 cases in the province on March 23, nearly half the nation’s total, and hospitals in Karachi, the provincial capital, are unable to cope with the influx of infected patients. Some have closed completely. Much of Pakistan is currently in full or partial lockdown, and the army has been deployed to keep the peace.
There are fewer recorded cases of the virus in East Africa, according to March 24 statistics from Covid19live.info, just 25 in Kenya, 12 in Ethiopia, and 9 in Uganda. But there are also very few tests available. Anglican Churches in Rwanda, Kenya, and Uganda have all suspended public worship gatherings for at least several weeks to limit the spread of the disease.
Climate change has played a key role in expanding the locust swarms, which have not appeared with such severity since the 1950’s, before the advent of effective large-scale insecticides. The Guardian reports that since May 2018’s Cyclone Mekunu, the Arabian Gulf has seen an unprecedented series of cyclones. Repeated rainstorms have made the normally arid Empty Quarter unusually fertile, allowing locusts to reproduce at approximately 8,000 times their normal rate. The increase in cyclone activity is associated with the Indian Ocean dipole, a shift in weather patterns in the ocean and the lands around it, which also caused the devastating droughts behind the Australian wildfires.
A cyclone powered by the dipole last December provided a wetter-than-usual breeding season for the insects in Somalia and Southern Iran, allowing dramatic growth in the swarms. Meteorologists predict that seasonal rains across Eastern and Central Africa, also powered by the phenomenon, will be heavier than usual this spring. A local Ugandan Christian leader told Barnabas Fund, “Locusts are going to have soft ground under which breeding is going to triple. As locusts increase, the danger towards destruction of both food and pasture will also triple. If there are no measures to mitigate the awaited calamity, people’s lives will get destroyed by hunger.”
Conflict and instability in Yemen and Somalia have also figured heavily in the outbreak. Desert locusts are common throughout the year in Yemen, but the UN Food and Agricultural Organization has operated a spraying program for many years to keep the population under control. Since war broke out between the rebels and Houthi rebels in 2015, the program has not been able to operate at full capacity.
The head of the Yemeni locust control program, Adel ai-Shabani told The Guardian, “Before the war we had a good ability to reach anywhere in Yemen… In current times we’re just able to cover the Red Sea coastal areas – but not all – and some areas in the interior.” Similar no-go areas made eradication programs impossible in large parts of Somalia, where the central government lacks effective control of large parts of the country.
The UN estimates that it will cost around $65 million to effectively curtail the spread of the swarms by intensified aerial spraying. But timing is crucial, as the locust breeding season is already underway. If a new generation of locust larvae are able to reach adulthood, costs could increase to $500 million to contain the outbreak.