A locust outbreak, the worst in recent decades, is threatening millions of hectares of land in eight countries across the Horn of Africa, Middle East, and South Asia. As with pandemics, plagues like these cannot be managed without regional and international cooperation since they have no regard for national borders.
Southeastern Iran has been experiencing locust swarms every year and authorities there do prepare for infestations. However, according to Keith Cressman — senior locust forecaster for the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) — this year swarms invaded the southwest of the country, where seasonal rains came early.
Iranian Ambassador to Pakistan Seyed Mohammad Ali Hosseini wrote recently that the issue of locust swarms should be dealt with regionally. In an article entitled, “The challenge to food security: a new agenda for regional cooperation,” he warned that “If Iran is not able to control the pests, Pakistan will also be damaged.”
Months of rain in East Africa and Southwest Asia, including Iran, provided the perfect environment for the desert locust to breed. Southern parts of Iran witnessed locust swarms arriving mostly from India and Pakistan.
The bigger the swarms, the more devastating the impact. Even a small swarm containing 40 million locusts can consume an amount of food sufficient to feed 35,000 people in just one day. Considering the distance the insects can travel — roughly 100 miles per day — any swarm should be considered a regional threat.
A report by the U.N. World Food Program (WFP) indicates that a second wave of swarming locusts will leave tens of millions of people in a state of food insecurity. WFP Executive Director David Beasley warned the United Nations Security Council in mid-April that urgent actions are needed to prevent “multiple famines of biblical proportions.” Beasley repeated that warning at a virtual event at the Atlantic Council on May 8.
The interaction of the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, civil conflicts and locust invasions is devastating to regional food production and distribution. Regional and international cooperation is vital to meet the challenge. Unfortunately, travel restrictions aimed at preventing COVID-19’s spread have hampered measures to combat locust swarms across ten countries. In some countries, pest control workers have even been unable to go outside to spray pesticide. These restrictions are beginning to loosen, but there is still a shortage of necessary chemicals due to the disruption of supply chains.
Similar problems exist in the South Asia region. According to Hosseini, the COVID-19 pandemic has prevented meetings between Iranian and Pakistani teams to discuss cooperation in fighting the locusts. A global recession, spurred by lockdowns imposed to contain the pandemic, is also hampering the collection of necessary funds to deal with the swarms.
Sanctions is also slowing the fight against locusts. Referring to the impact of sanctions imposed by the U.S. on Iran, Hosseini wrote: “Crippling sanctions against Iran have drastically reduced resources that were supposed to be allocated to the desert locust problem.”
Sanctions, in conjunction with the pandemic, are weakening Iran’s economy and making it more difficult for the country to import necessary effective chemicals to kill the locusts. Lacking access to appropriate chemicals, “they sprayed whatever they had, often mixing large quantities of water with other pesticides in a desert region that is already struggling with drought,” Cressman said.
Regional conflicts also impede an effective response. In 1979, locust management cooperation between Iran and Pakistan was disrupted due to the Iranian revolution. The collaboration eventually resumed in the 1990s with help of the FAO. However, in Yemen, one of the major frontiers for the locusts, the program to fight them is hampered because its cities are under control of warring factions. The situation is particularly dire because of flooding and heavy rain, which are the perfect hatching ground for swarms expected to move in Ethiopia, Somalia, Eritrea, and Sudan in mid-June.
In many parts of the world that go through the devastation of locust swarms, people struggling with food shortages eat the locusts and/or use them as animal feed. A famous poem by the Iranian 12th -century poet Saadi Shirazi describes starvation due to catastrophic locust swarms: “Like beggars, the trees stood leafless, and the mountains lost their verdure. The locusts devoured the gardens, and men devoured the locusts.”
However, today people are strongly warned against eating locusts since different kinds of pesticides and insect funguses used to fight the swarms can make the insects highly toxic. For that matter, the aerial pesticide spraying that has been performed across ten countries also has a neurotoxic effect on both humans and their livestock.
The outlook is not unremittingly bleak, however. The FAO Commission for Controlling the Desert Locust in South-West Asia (SWAC) — an early warning and prevention system — was established in 1964 and consists of Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, and India. Regional cooperation goes back even earlier, to 1942, when an Indian delegation helped Iran in its fight against locusts. The FAO puts all data online so countries can coordinate and target breeding sites for pesticide spraying.
Even rivals India and Pakistan have collaborated in the fight against locust swarms. During a time of high tension over Kashmir in 2019, when all other activities between the two countries, including communications and trade, were on hold, dialogue over fighting locusts continued.
Still, without more international funding, the impact of the locusts on top of the COVID-19 pandemic is going to be catastrophic. As Beasley said, “economic sanctions can prevent or slow down this fight. Time is not on our side, so let’s act wisely — and let’s act fast.”