A locust cloud over Juncus maritimus at Imililik, Western Sahara (April, 1944).

The Geopolitics of the Locust Swarm

As global media attention and public panic fall upon the spread of a novel strain of Coronavirus out of the Chinese province of Hubei, an entirely separate ‘plague’ is proliferating around the shores of the Indian Ocean, at a truly historic rate: the locust swarm. In this piece, John Scott examines the monumental food security risks unfolding across a region housing 10% of the world’s population.

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Earlier this week, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) announced an “unprecedented threat to food security and livelihoods” in the Horn of Africa and South Asia due to an infestation of Schistocerca gregaria – the desert locust. Swarms of the insects – which number into the tens of billions and span the length of several football fields – have spread to twelve countries so far, and pose a ‘serious threat to crops’ in over half of them. Most affected are Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Ethiopia, Somalia, Kenya, Pakistan, and India; an area of impact housing a tenth of the world’s population.

In Kenya alone, the locusts have infested over 70,000 hectares of arable land, making the event the worst of its kind since 1950. Meanwhile, in Pakistan, Prime Minister Khan declared a state of emergency and ordered that the military immediately begin deploying to assist pesticidal efforts.

The ongoing spread of the potentially lethal coronavirus Cnov-2019 out of Chinese food markets and into four other continents is no doubt a worthy cause for alarm, particularly after the World Health Organisation officially labelled it a health emergency of international concern. But the threat posed by swarms of locusts in some of the world’s most important breadbaskets must be treated with equal significance. While the pests do not directly harm humans, they can eviscerate a region’s agricultural output in a matter of days, in the process ramping up food prices, threatening millions of jobs, and diverting major economic resources.

This particularly vicious infestation – which occurs fairly regularly but at much lower magnitudes – has spiralled as a result of weather patterns across East Africa and the Middle East. A rise in surface temperature in the western Indian Ocean last year has fomented weather fronts that prompted additional precipitation in the region’s rainy season, in turn causing irregularly high crop yields and providing the desert locust with perfect breeding conditions. The damage threatens to far outstrip the positive results of last year’s bumper harvest.

Looking back over decades, it is clear that the nations most threatened by this biblical plague have largely failed to coordinate a multilateral pro-active response. It is not a new phenomenon. In 1915, in the then-Ottoman ruled Levant, a locust swarm annihilated crop yields in what is now Lebanon, Israel, Palestine and Syria, causing flour prices to rise sixfold. This was a major factor in the Great Famine of Mount Lebanon, which historians estimate took the lives of 200,000 people. Nearly a century later, a similar outbreak in the Sahel caused harvest losses of 2.5 billion dollars in an already highly food insecure region, exacerbating famine across a dozen borders.

Now, this current outbreak cruelly falls upon some of the world’s poorest communities, and indeed some of those most threatened by conflict. 14 million people are already at risk of famine in Yemen due to the Houthi war, and this situation has been deeply exacerbated now that the insects have fallen upon the resource-rich western Tihama Plain. In Somalia, meanwhile, where the UN predicts the swarms may grow in size by 500 times before the dry season, the insects are devouring crops at such a rate that they consume a year’s food for two thousand people on a daily basis. In a region that is so contested by armed groups and where supply lines are so volatile, there is little hope of a fully adequate international response, while reported local attempts at a response – such as firing machine guns at locust swarms – raise questions around viability. Across the region, the infestation’s threat to agricultural supply will only intensify throughout February and March, as further rainfall drives exponential locust reproduction.

Looking south to Kenya, where President Kenyatta’s government has repeatedly committed to eradicating food insecurity as part of its ‘Big Four’ development project, farmers’ demands for subsidies will only accelerate during this period. At a time when the ruling Jubilee party already faces unprecedented fragility, this could drain public finances and may even devalue the shilling – neither of which would be welcome in the face of the International Monetary Fund, which has continually warned Nairobi over its public spending rates.

It may be that this genuine political and economic crisis simply receives less attention than coronavirus because it appears less threatening to Western observers. It bears none of the hallmarks of an imminent direct threat – the face masks, the airport screenings, the hazmat suits. It also most severely affects areas of the world that often suffer from so-called ‘crisis fatigue‘. But over the next three months, this natural plague – which demonstrably has its roots in the global changing climate for which Western consumers are not free of blame – is set to pose a credible threat to life to millions.

Borders cannot be closed to locusts, crops cannot be vaccinated, and powerful militaries can do little to stem the tide of a billion insects. Moreover, as ocean temperatures rise, the reappearance of this threat in future is an actuarial certainty. The infestations will continue to cause significant disruption to government agendas and private sector supply lines, not merely isolated to agriculture.

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John Scott is a Scottish security analyst with expertise in counter-narcotics and non-state groups. John has degrees in Political Science from St Andrews and Glasgow University, and recently completed a NATO Military Security course in Lithuania. He has contributed policy research for a political group in the Central African Republic and organised crime analysis for Intelligence Fusion, and now works in political risk for a leading intelligence firm in London.

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Photo credit: Universidad Autónoma de Madrid

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