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Spearheading the fight against desert locust in East Africa

Spearheading the fight against desert locust in East Africa

Chimimba David Phiri (PhD) is a policy economist and sub-regional coordinator for Eastern Africa and representative to the African Union with the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO). Before May 2018, Phiri was the Sub-regional Coordinator for the FAO Sub-regional Office for Southern Africa for five years. In addition to this role, he served as FAO Representative to Zimbabwe, Swaziland and Botswana.  Phiri joined FAO at its headquarters in Rome in 1991 as a policy economist in the Economic and Social Development Department. From 1998 to 2008, he served in the Cabinet of the FAO Director-General, where he was involved in the policy direction and overall management of the organization. In September 2008, Phiri was appointed Chief of the Policy Assistance Support Service in the Technical Cooperation Department. In this position, Phiri was the focal point for FAO’s support to the African Union and its NEPAD program, and he chaired the Organization-wide Task Team for such cooperation. The growing impacts of desert locust in many parts of Africa and Asia has required technical and financial resources to be pulled together and for that FAO has been appealing for help. In an email interview with Birhanu Fikade of The Reporter, Phiri talks about the challenges desert locust pose and other pertinent issues. Excerpts:

The Reporter: We knew from the projections of FAO that the locust infestation will persist for months to come. Hence, what are the likely scenarios that East Africa is going to be faced with

Chimimba David Phiri (PhD): In East Africa, the situation remains critical for Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia. Limited locust activity is reported in South Sudan, but the country remains at risk and on alert. Although, the situation in Djibouti, Eritrea and Uganda has eased, monitoring is constantly ongoing in case of resurgence. There have been no further reports of locust invasions in Tanzania. The preliminary forecast of above average rainfall for June to September in Sudan or parts of Ethiopia are concerning as this could create favourable conditions for Desert Locust (DL) breeding or the entry into the region of new swarms via the Arabian Peninsula.

In this regard, FAO’s DL management support program extends to addressing the threat which is at present intensifying in the Arabian Peninsula particularly in Yemen as well as in Iran, Pakistan and India. These locations can be future sources of new swarms as they head back toward Eastern Africa in the near future on prevailing winds and favourable weather conditions.

FAO’s and the affected Governments’ DL control efforts over the past few months have endeavoured to exterminate as many mature stages of the desert locust; however, due to the massive size of the many swarms some were able to land and lay eggs. We expect that DL will start emerging as juveniles (hoppers) and then metamorphose into adults in June-July, unleashing additional swarms of voracious locusts.  The emergence of these swarms will coincide with the start of the main harvesting season of crops in June across east Africa. If unchecked, the crops and pastures of millions of vulnerable people are in the path of destruction. If farmers lose their crops to Desert Locust, they will have no food stocks from late June until December 2020, for next harvest.

Previously, before February, FAO has requested USD 140 million for an immediate assistance. Does it require more than that this time as the infestation continues to grow for an extended period?  And if more resources are required, what are the chances of getting those in time?

FAO’s call for February was USD 153 million to support rapid and large-scale operations in 10 countries. However, the revised appeal for July to respond to expanded threats and needs with the inclusion of West Africa and Southwest Asia in addition to Horn of Africa has forced the organization to appeal for increased resources.  FAO is now asking for USD 311 million to implement locust controls on 3.2 million hectares and provide livelihoods support to 313,000 households. FAO’s current appeal for East Africa and Yemen is USD 231.6 million.  USDUSD 179 million has been received or committed to-date with a gap of USD 52.6 million. The appeal will Cover Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Uganda, Tanzania and Yemen. It is worth noting that in East Africa and Yemen, FAO and government partners have scored significant victories.

More than one million hectares of land have been surveyed. Nearly 600,000 hectares have been treated since January in East Africa and Yemen, under the FAO appeal. An estimated half a trillion locusts have been eliminated. In addition, over 1.2 million metric tonnes of cereals have been protected -- enough to feed around 7.9 million people for one year valued at US USD 357.3 million.

Battles have been won, but the campaign is not over. Climatic conditions continue to favour breeding in some places. Mass locust migrations are imminent. Surveillance and control operations must be maintained and the livelihoods of affected populations need reinforcing.

Accordingly, key elements of FAO’s current Desert Locust campaign aim to increase and enhance surveillance, data collection, timely reporting and massively up scaling aerial and ground control operations.  It also includes locust surveillance on more than one million hectares and control operations on one million hectares,  interventions to safeguard livelihoods and promote early recovery, targeting  vulnerable and food insecure households in affected countries, Cash-for-work program to channel money to families who have lost crops or animals so they can buy food or farming supplies, providing feed and health care to animals weakened by the loss of forage,  and delivering farmers packages of seeds and tools to help them replant. 

FAO is facilitating information sharing and coordination between countries in the region. At the same time, with the support of the funds received, FAO is helping governments rapidly strengthen national capacity to manage locusts through training and to strengthen their reporting, surveillance and control capacities.

What makes it difficult to control the expansive nature of the locust infestation?

Locusts reproduce very quickly; swarms shift their locations rapidly and they are able to move and spread across long distances; the areas affected are generally vast and often remote. Swarms include millions of individuals and when they begin moving they prove to be a difficult target for DL control teams. Desert locust monitoring and control teams use every means possible to track locust swarms as they move. You can imagine a swarm moving at a fast rate covering 100-200 km/day. DL control teams give chase on foot, on motorcycles, in vehicles and by air (planes and helicopters) and most of the time they are hindered by the rough terrain they must traverse to keep up with the swarms. Ideally control operations occur when the swarms have settled down in an area, but often it is difficult to predict where these locations will be. Desert locusts have a mind of their own so the best we can do is intensify our monitoring, rely on reports of locust presence, mobilise monitoring and control teams as quickly as possible and launch air assets to get to these locations as quickly as possible. Weather conditions in these localities also affect the efficiency of the ground control teams as well as the prevailing security situation in some areas where these teams need to operate.

COVID-19 has complicated the efforts of DL control and it is expected that it has introduced additional setbacks. What has been the impact seen in the East African region?  

FAO, like many other humanitarian and development agencies working in the region, has had to adjust and restructure the way it copes with a series of challenges presented by the COVID-19 situation. At the start of the covid-19 crisis in East Africa, the first impact to Desert locust operations was interruption or delays to the supply chains for acquisition and deployment of urgently needed Desert Locust control inputs such as field experts, pesticides, fuel, field surveillance and control equipment, and of capital assets, such as vehicles including aerial capacity.  To mitigate this impact, FAO decided to spread the risk across the supply chain of control assets, diversifying sources of products and prioritizing batch deliveries over bulk procurements. This strategy proved successful, especially for pesticides, as no major disruption to stocks have been observed despite nominal delays in delivery and the need to manage minimum stocks in early April (particularly in Kenya). It was advantageous that most experts deployed to help locust affected countries were in place before covid-19 restrictions came into effect.

As the COVID crisis increased and governments began taking more measured actions to contain the spread through social isolation measures and teleworking requirements of relevant state and partner actors began posing challenges and creating some delays. However, governments in East Africa have treated the locust response as an urgent priority and control operations continue almost unhindered with the addition of some extra precautionary health and safety protocols rapidly put in place.  FAO and the governments have also prioritised sourcing expertise and manpower from within affected countries, and leveraging the expertise we already have in countries to help governments build national/local capacities. New ways are being identified to deliver training, such as the use of remote or virtual tools and platforms where group gatherings are not permitted.

We heard from the Ethiopian Ministry of Agriculture that aircraft and helicopters have been stranded due to lockdowns. We also know that FAO has provided support to address that request. To what extent are issues of logistics affecting the fight against desert locust?

In Ethiopia, two planes from the Desert Locust Control Organization (DLCO) are operational alongside air assets from the government as well as foreign based aircraft that have been hired to support the national efforts. For those external assets, getting the pilots in to man the aircraft was done in accordance with national COVID-19 precautions which introduced some delay to get those assets in the air. Nevertheless, ground control operations were largely unhindered and with DLCO support the national DL control teams were able to be mobilized.

FAO has similarly faced logistical issues to acquire, transport and deploy the airplanes and helicopters as well as other needed ground control equipment in the affected countries of the region. FAO also ensured quality assurance procedures are adhered to so that all the equipment provided are within standards, reliable and safe for their operators. Use of air assets such as planes and helicopters have also presented additional challenges as these pieces of equipment must meet national guidelines to operate in the airspace where they will be used and, where cross border operations are concerned, the aircraft must obtain the relevant authorizations of the respective governments where they are expected to work. For the most part FAO and Governments have worked out many of the issues but frequent review is conducted to ensure that logistics issues are identified and addressed to ensure the DL program can operate optimally.

The Government of Ethiopia has estimated that at least 40 million quintals of major crops will be lost. What are FAO’s numbers revealing?

A full understanding of the crops lost due to desert locusts across the East Africa region will only be available under seasonal assessments during the harvest period, as the current situation is quite volatile as locusts move from one area to another quite quickly. However, desert locust impact monitoring is currently underway across the region and will provide additional information on likely losses. Data collection for this monitoring activity is underway across the region and results will be available in the next several weeks.

That said, a recent joint assessment in Ethiopia including the Government of Ethiopia, FAO, and partners found that, as of April 2020, desert locust had affected 806 400 agricultural households, 197 163 ha of cropland and 1 350 000 ha of rangeland, and resulted in 356 286 tonnes of lost cereals. As a result, an additional 976 381 people would likely be in need of emergency food assistance.

Similarly, in Somalia, recent estimates are that the 2020 Gu/Karan season would likely experience production loss due to desert locust of approximately 19 000 tonnes and is likely to coincide with flood-induced crop losses in riverine areas, which are estimated to be another 11 000 tonnes. Consequently, Gu production is currently expected to be 15 – 25 percent below average.

FAO has been echoing the predicted food insecurity problems induced by the locust invasion. What will be the current and future status of food security in the locust prone countries

Right now, the focus needs to be locust control and livelihood protection, as well as anticipatory action to prevent a food crisis from emerging. Though no one at the moment is projecting that famine* will break out due to the locusts, we cannot forget that East Africa is already coping with the impacts of extended droughts, floods, conflict and displacement, and macroeconomic challenges.  Over 11 million people in Crisis (IPC Phase 3) or worse food insecurity live in desert locust affected areas of the 3 worst locust-affected countries (Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia) and require urgent action. An additional 2.76 million people in Crisis (IPC Phase 3) or worse in South Sudan and 120,000 people in in Uganda are also under threat from the swarms.

Crisis or worse food insecurity (IPC3+) means that people are cutting back on the number and quality of meals and using what resources they have to pay for food instead of school fees or health costs. They may even selling off their meagre possessions - like livestock, tools, seeds, and others, which will leave them even more vulnerable. Levels of acute malnutrition also begin to increase at this level of food insecurity. Thanks to improved quality of data / analysis (IPC), FAO and the humanitarian community can monitor the evolution of the food security situation across the affected countries. If all indications begin to point toward a further deterioration of the food security situation, FAO would be in a position to alert Governments / the international community to collectively act to provide humanitarian assistance at scale to avert it.

We hear complaints on agencies in regards to information sharing on the status and possible outbreak of infestation among East African countries. How does FAO face that challenge? 

FAO has various information generation and sharing tools. For the Desert Locust FAO has a dedicated website that provides daily updates and analysis on the development of Desert Locust globally. FAO closely monitors the global Desert Locust situation 24/7 and provides forecasts, early warning and alerts on the timing, scale and location of invasions and breeding through its global Desert Locust Information Service (DLIS).  All locust-affected countries transmit locust data to FAO which in turn analyses this information in conjunction with weather and habitat data and satellite imagery in order to assess the current locust situation, provide forecasts up to six weeks in advance and issue warnings on an ad-hoc basis.

The locust surveillance data collected across the region is also publicly available online for download by other agencies for their own analyses.

FAO prepares monthly bulletins and periodic updates summarizing the locust situation and forecasting migration and breeding on a country by country basis. Furthermore, FAO undertakes field assessment missions, strengthens national capacity, and coordinates survey and control operations as well as emergency assistance during locust upsurges and plagues.

Has the early warning system helped in reducing or minimizing infestation levels? 

Wider use of FAO’s eLocust3 monitoring tool is critical to ensure effective targeting of swarms. Government teams and NGOs reporting locust movements are urged to use eLocust3, exclusively.

FAO’s role is to provide governments with early warning, expertise, support, and resources.  It has designated the situation as one of its highest corporate priorities and activated fast-track mechanisms to move swiftly to support governments. FAO has placed experts in affected countries to rapidly boost national capacities to carry out coordinated locust-control activities, assess damages, and help teams target swarms.  The Organization is supporting national survey and control teams using eLocust3 – a handheld digital tool – to record and transmit data to national locust centres and FAO’s Desert Locust Information Service.  The efficacy of the early warning system is only as good as the quality and frequency of data introduced via the tools provided. All who use the tools are expected to be familiar with the tools and the information requirements. The Ministry of Agriculture officials can provide orientation on the use of the tools.

What’s your advice before the rainy season begins in Eastern Africa? 

FAO and the national authorities provide advice to farmers in dealing with the threat of the Desert Locust, whilst at the same time, resource partners support the ongoing response activities. We have seen and heard that certain communities have been beating pots and pans, dancing, blowing whistles, shooting bullets or tear gas, and lighting smoky fires as a common response, but these actions do not kill any Desert Locust. They simply scare them away to neighbouring areas. This can have a negative effect for the DL control teams that are trying to reach the locust swarms that have settled. It is important for communities (farmers and pastoralists) when they spot swarms approaching to call the relevant number provided by their local Ministry of Agriculture authority. They should report the sightings, the relative direction of travel, the areas where they see that the swarms are settling as well as the colour and whether they the locusts are adults or hoppers, if they can distinguish it. It is also important for communities not to attempt to apply chemical control measures themselves but leave that job to the official DL control teams when they arrive. It is important for farmers to follow the advice of DL control teams if they need to undertake actions to protect their fields.