It all started in the Horn of Africa. Huge swarms of desert locusts (Schistocerca gregaria), began emerging in Somalia, Eritrea, and Ethiopia last year, which then spread to Kenya, Sudan, South Sudan, and Uganda. As these African countries struggled to contain, let alone get rid of the swarms, strong winds have helped sweep locusts into the Middle East and South Asia in recent months. They have reached Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Bahrain, Yemen, Oman, Kuwait, and Iran.
While all these countries are battling with locusts, Saudi Arabia has been at the forefront of the invasion of these insects and has suffered the most.
Locusts are inherently harmless and present no risk to crops and pastures when they live a solitary life. But they can become a serious threat to agriculture and a major nuisance to people as their numbers grow.
Unusually heavy rains in East Africa during wet seasons over the past couple of years created good breeding grounds for locusts.
Swarms of locusts can emerge when droughts are followed by intense rainfall and swift vegetation growth. Unusually heavy rains in East Africa during wet seasons over the past couple of years created good breeding grounds for locusts. Able to fly long distances, they can cover 94 miles in a day.
Nearly 80 million insects can flock within locust swarms per square mile. And they can easily move and cover hundreds of square miles. These days, they blanket the ground and skies in infested regions. People even used shovels to remove locusts. They are now an existential menace to agricultural lands across East Africa and the other side of the Red Sea – Saudi Arabia.
When traveling in swarms, locusts can consume entire crops in mere minutes. These ravenous creatures can eat all crops, vegetation, and fruits in their sights. The level of devastation left after their passage is frightening: one ton’s-worth of locusts are able to “eat the same amount of food in one day as 35,000 people.” The food security of the country and livelihoods of numerous farmers are at high risk from these creatures in Saudi Arabia and other countries in the region.
One ton’s-worth of locusts are able to “eat the same amount of food in one day as 35,000 people.”
Within weeks, locusts invaded all parts of Saudi Arabia this winter, including farms and agricultural areas in Qassim, Riyadh, Makkah, Ha’il, and the Eastern Province. There are so many insects that they have covered everything in sight. As they began to consume crops in Asir, Jazan, Al-Baha, Al-Leith, Mecca, and Qunfudhah, they were met with exterminators.
According to Mohammad Al-Shammrani, who heads the Saudi Ministry of Environment’s section focused on combating locusts and plagues, Saudi Arabia has been trying to get rid of the insects since the beginning of this year. He assured the public that the authorities have been spraying all across the Kingdom’s Red Sea coast and borders with other countries.
The Saudi Ministry of Agriculture and Water said in February that cities in the Eastern Province, Dammam and Hafr Al Batin, were treated and cleared of locusts, but they are still present in the Province’s other cities and communities, such as Khobar, Qativ, and Abqaiq.
While the first generation of locust swarms appeared to be gone in some areas of Saudi Arabia, a new generation is expected.
While the first generation of locust swarms appeared to be gone in some areas of the country, a new generation is expected to appear soon.
According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), containing and eliminating locusts in the Arabian Gulf during the spring will be crucial before the onset of a new breeding season in the summer. Daily aerial and ground use of insecticide is the only effective measure to control the infestation, particularly since they can lay eggs and reproduce quite rapidly.
Saudi Arabia and other countries in the region confronted locust invasion in 2019, too. However, the plague this year is worse compared to that of last year. Some people even ate locusts in Saudi Arabia to allegedly boost their protein-intake. But local authorities advised against consumption of the insects because of a high content of pesticides.
One of the major challenges in preventing the locust problem is climate change. The hotter the climate, the more damaging locusts could get.
The past five years have recorded some of the hottest years since the industrial revolution. Extreme weather events, such as unusually heavy rainfall during rainy seasons following a drought, can create ideal breeding conditions for locusts. If the infestations are beyond control, it becomes known as a “plague” of locusts. There were six large-scale locust plagues in the 1990s and between 2003 and 2005.
“There is a link between climate change and the unprecedented locust crisis.”
Warning about the growing locust infestation problem, Secretary General of the United Nations (UN) Antonio Guterres said: “There is a link between climate change and the unprecedented locust crisis. Warmer seas mean more cyclones generating the perfect breeding ground for locusts. Today, the swarms are as big as major cities, and it is getting worse by the day.” According to FAO, this year’s plague is the worst in 25 years.
The swarms this year have been devastating to crops and vegetation across East Africa. There are fears of severe food shortages in Somalia, Ethiopia, and Kenya, which already suffer from poverty. As such, Saudi Arabia imports 80 percent of its food requirements, while the remaining 20 percent is produced locally. There is still a chance to save agriculture in the rich state, if the country intensifies spraying operations during the spring.
If locusts are not contained, they may destroy the Kingdom’s ability to be self-sufficient in food production and lead to higher food prices at the time when its economy is already suffering from the impact of the new coronavirus (COVID-19) on public health and its oil price war with Russia with its detrimental impact on its energy sector. Highly dependent on oil revenues, Saudi authorities are struggling to balance the national budget due to historically low oil prices.
The locust plague may destroy Saudi Arabia’s ability to be self-sufficient in food production and lead to higher food prices.
Since locust plagues happened two years in a row, Saudi Arabia should be prepared if the problem repeats next year. However, it is hard to avoid locusts when the countries they originated from in Africa have limited resources and capability to prevent them from growing and spreading.
Finally, the spread of COVID-19 has hindered efforts to eliminate locusts in Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia, Iran, and Yemen, while other countries, including Saudi Arabia made progress in reducing the locust plague. With the new breeding season looming in April, they are likely to come back with a vengeance and re-establish their presence across East Africa and the Middle East.
Because the insects know no national borders, Saudi Arabia, along with other wealthy countries in the Gulf, could help poorer East African countries bring the situation under control, particularly amid the challenge of tackling another global problem – COVID-19. The alternative is a biblical plague that consumes everything on its path.