A swarm of locusts passed through the Middle East last year, eating their way through Somalia and Ethiopia on their way to East Africa. Migrating with the wind, the locusts can cover up to 150km in a single day.
The problem came to a head last week when a “super-swarm” almost 600 square miles across was spotted last week on its way into Kenya, signaling its worst infestation of locusts in 70 years.
“There are nearly 12 million people that are severely food insecure in the three countries that are affected by locusts now,” Keith Cressman, the senior locust forecasting officer with UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), said to the CBC Radio, noting that a swarm of 150 million locusts can cover one square kilometer in size and consume enough food for 35,000 people in a single day. About 173,000 acres of land are currently infested.
The swarm that has just passed through Somalia and Ethiopia to reach Kenya is estimated, by the FAO, to contain around 200 billion locusts. One swarm in Kenya measured 37 miles long by 25 miles wide in the north-east of the country, according to the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD).
The UN said the situation is desperate and about $70 million in aid is needed to increase aerial pesticide spraying in the region, the only effective way to combat the locusts. Kenya currently has four airplanes that have been specially modified for spraying locusts.
The problem began last year when hot weather led to increased swarms in the Arabian Peninsula. Hot winds drove the insects to Iran and then on to Pakistan and India. After that, the locusts ate their way through Yemen which is in the middle of a protracted civil war which has caused a famine. Under non-war conditions, governments usually deal with locusts in a timely fashion, preventing such a prolonged infestation that only becomes more serious as it continues.
It is interesting to note that in 2019, the swarm was poised to sweep northward from Egypt, entering Israel just before the Passover holiday. But that swarm fizzled out, leaving Israelis in peace to eat matzah (unleavened bread) in commemoration of the Pascal lamb that was sacrificed in the Temple.
The infestation would not have been a total catastrophe as locusts are the only insect that is kosher for Jews to eat and could have been served at the Passover seder feast.
Of these you may eat the following: locusts of every variety; all varieties of bald locust; crickets of every variety; and all varieties of grasshopper. Leviticus 11:22
The swarms of locusts are now winging their way toward Uganda and South Sudan, where almost half the country faces hunger after a civil war.
“The livelihoods and kind of the vulnerabilities of the inhabitants of this part of Africa [are] already extremely fragile,” Cressman said. “This problem is not going away very soon and could potentially become much much worse.”
Even before this outbreak, nearly 20 million people in the region faced high levels of food insecurity across East African due to recent episodes of periodic droughts and floods. This is similar to the situation described in the Bible in which locusts came as the penultimate plague, finishing up any shreds of food that remained in Egypt after the first eight plagues.
For the Biblically inclined, swarms of locusts evoke images of pre-Exodus Egypt, especially this week when Jews around the world read the section of the Torah describing the plague.
They covered the face of the whole land so that the land was darkened, and they ate all the plants in the land and all the fruit of the trees that the hail had left. Not a green thing remained neither tree nor plant of the field, through all the land of Egypt. Exodus 10:15
But even for the less-spiritual, this huge swarm of locusts was a reminder of the plagues preceding the Exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt. Business Day Magazine, an African media, covered the locust in an article headlined “Locust Plague Plunges Africa into Food Crisis of Biblical Proportions.”