Inside East Africa's massive locust infestation

Taking advantage of favourable breeding conditions, locusts hit farmers and herders in areas already reeling from climate shocks.

Desert locust infestations have moved across Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia, and are now entering areas of northern Uganda. The insects are also threatening Sudan and South Sudan, and there are reports of locust swarms now in Tanzania.

map of affected areas
Map of affected areas. Credit: UN Food and Agriculture Organization

The desert locust is among the most dangerous migratory pests in the world: A large desert locust plague can contain up to 58 million individuals per square mile, with half a million locusts weighing approximately one ton. One ton of locusts eats as much food in one day as about 10 elephants, 25 camels or 2,500 people.

"We depend on livestock and if there is no fodder for our livestock, life will be difficult for us, we ask for help urgently," said Mohammed Hassan Abdille, a farmer from Bura Dhima in Tana River, Kenya. This is the worst locust crisis in 70 years for Kenya alone.

The locusts have hit the region after countries there were affected by huge droughts and in some areas flash floods. There are currently 22.8m people facing severe food insecurity in these countries following consecutive failed rainy seasons, unusual floods, and storms.

The fast-moving locust swarms have been made worse by the climate crisis because they are feeding on new vegetation, the result of unusual weather patterns. They are devastating pastures and grasslands and could ruin new food crops during the March-to-July growing season.

Oxfam's Response

Oxfam is gearing up its humanitarian operations and will work closely with local partners and communities. Program staff in the region report they aim to reach more than 190,000 of the most vulnerable people with cash assistance, livestock feed, seeds, and health services.

In Somalia, together with local partners, Oxfam intends to assist 11,670 households of the most vulnerable people. In Kenya, Oxfam will work in seven of the 13 affected counties to assist 3,000 households in the first phase of operations, and another 5,000 in the second. In Ethiopia, Oxfam aims to reach another 5,000 households with similar aid. Oxfam will need to secure more than €4.6 million (£3.8 million) to mount this response.

Unusual rains advance breeding

This outbreak has been exacerbated by climate change. Cyclones that struck the Arabian Peninsula last year created ideal conditions for desert locusts to multiply. The swarms crossed to the Horn of Africa, where unusually heavy rains late last year created favorable breeding conditions. Heavy rain leads to growth of vegetation in arid areas, providing locusts with more food, and the conditions needed to develop and reproduce.

You can help Oxfam respond to the locust crisis in East Africa.

Five things you need to know about Africa's locust crisis

1. What is a locust and how do they live?

Locusts are a type of grasshopper that live for only 3 months. They generally live quiet, solitary lives – until they change their behaviour and form massive ravenous swarms that can migrate over long distances, flying up to 150 km per day. Swarms can contain up to 10 billion individuals, devastating local farms and livelihoods as all of them migrate.

2. Why is this a crisis?

This is the worst locust crisis in 70 years for Kenya alone. One of the alarming reasons why is because locust adults can eat their own weight every day. According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), a swarm the size of Paris will consume the same amount of food in a single day as half the population of Mali, Niger and France, respectively. If environmental conditions remain suitable, the swarms could grow 500 times bigger by June, destroying valuable pasture and food supplies across parts of Ethiopia and Kenya and could also put South Sudan, Eritrea and Djibouti at risk, making it the worst locust infestation in 25 years.

The last major locust crisis was in West Africa in 2003-05 and cost $2.5 billion in harvest losses, according to the UN.

“We depend on livestock and if there is no fodder for our livestock, life will be difficult for us, we ask for help urgently,” said Mohammed Hassan Abdille, a Kenyan farmer.

swarm of locusts in africa
Desert locusts have swarmed into Kenya from Somalia and Ethiopia, destroying farmland. Photo: FAO/Sven Torfinn

3. How is this locust crisis related to climate change?

The last five years have been hotter than any other since the industrial revolution. Studies have linked a hotter climate to more damaging locust swarms, leaving Africa, which is home to 20 of the world’s fastest-warming countries, disproportionately affected.

However, locusts also thrive in wet conditions and the amount of rain that fell on the Horn of Africa between October to December 2019 was up to 400 per cent above normal. These heavy rains were caused by the Indian Ocean dipole, which is also accentuated by climate change.

4. How is this locust crisis affecting local communities?

The infestation is affecting communities across East Africa, including Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya – three countries absolutely devastated by severe droughts and flooding in recent years. Now the livelihoods of more than 13 million people, who are already experiencing severe food shortages as a result of climate-related weather extremes, are under threat once again.

woman in locust swarm africa
A woman stands among a swarm of locusts, trying to chase them away. Photo: FAO/Sven Torfinn

5. What is Oxfam doing to help and how can I help?

Oxfam aims to reach over 190,000 of the most vulnerable people across Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia with cash assistance, livestock feed, seeds and health services. Our teams believe that infestations are also likely across South Sudan and Sudan, so preparations are already under way to mount a response to this crisis.

You can help by donating to help affected communities across the region. The livelihoods of some of the world’s most vulnerable people are under severe threat so we need your support!

Increase our aid budget, create a better world

The current Government has committed to spending 0.7 percent of national income on overseas development assistance (ODA) by 2030. Now, in the run-up to General Election 2020, we are calling on the new government to reach this target five years earlier.

Reaching this target sooner rather than later is vital if Ireland wants to maintain its positive reputation as a member of the global donor community and deliver on the ambition of the State’s ODA plan A Better World.

man and young son walk through floodwaters after cyclone
Tawab with his son, two year old Calado*, after carrying him through floodwaters in Mozambique after a devastating cyclone. *Name changed to protect identity. Photo: Tommy Trenchard/Oxfam

In Budget 2020, €837 million was pledged to development aid – an increase of some €21 million on the previous budget. The 2020 funding represented around 0.41 percent of national income (Gross National Income, or GNI, is an improved measure of domestic economic activity), leaving Ireland a long way off its target.

Any increase in development aid should be accompanied by a roadmap and timelines setting out the annual increases to reach the 0.7 percent figure. As well as quantity, the quality of aid is key, and Ireland has been recognised on the international stage as a donor that provides effective aid to tackle poverty and reduce vulnerability.


We are asking the next government to:

  • Increase our development aid budget to 0.7% of national income by 2025
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Protect refugees, keep families together

At an EU level, Ireland has been complicit in a failed migration system which prioritises border security over the needs of vulnerable people. While the numbers crossing the Mediterranean have dropped significantly since the peak in 2015, the situation for many refugees and migrants arriving in Europe has got worse. We have seen first-hand the devastation caused by Europe’s flawed migration policies – and instead want to present positive, alternative solutions.

Rohingya refugee Asia Bibi* cuddling daughter Nur*, 5, (left) and son Anwar*, 8, (right), who has jaundice, in their shelter in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. *Name changed to protect identity. Photo: Abbie Trayler-Smith/ Oxfam

Cooperation with such as Turkey and Libya on migration issues must be based on respect for human rights and international law; promote inclusive, accountable and transparent processes; and work for the benefit of displaced people, migrants, and communities in host and destination countries.

To address these issues, the next government needs to:

  • Support shared responsibility for hosting refugees equally throughout the EU under a proposed new Dublin system.
  • Support the implementation of EU asylum system that is safe, fair and effective and that provides access to basic services to all asylum seekers.
  • Support EU and NGO search-and-rescue operations with the sole objective of saving lives.
  • Only support partner countries’ security systems when it contributes to achieving peace and stability, inclusive and sustainable development, state-building and democracy, rule of law and protection of human rights.
  • Address the specific needs of refugee and migrant women and girls and promote their role as leaders for positive and inclusive change.

In 2018, Oxfam Ireland produced a report A Family Belongs Together which detailed the human consequences of the Irish Government’s policy on refugee family reunification, namely the impact on refugee families and on their ability to integrate into Irish society. The report shows that family separation has a destabilising effect on refugees living in Ireland and contributes to deteriorating mental health and wellbeing.

When families are reunited, the presence of relatives can help speed up integration – not just for the new arrivals, but family members already living in Ireland. A family provides nurturing and coping strategies and helps to anchor a loved one in a new place.

The Irish Government’s current policy on refugee family reunification is too restrictive and only allows a very narrow group of family members to apply to be reunited. Oxfam is calling on the next government to:

· Amend the International Protection Act (2015) to expand the definition of family to include young adults who are dependent on the family unit prior to flight; parents; siblings; in-laws, and any other dependent relative.

 · Introduce legal aid for people seeking refugee family reunion through increased funding to the Legal Aid Board by the Department of Justice.

 · Waive the income requirements for those who have received international protection who apply for family reunification.

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Know their score: Where the parties stand on GE2020 issues

At the start of the election campaign, we released our manifesto highlighting the most pressing global issues we want the next government to address – issues such as the climate crisis, sustainability, tax justice, gender equality and migration.

We have since reviewed all the main parties’ manifestos against the seven asks in ours and have created a scorecard highlighting their position on these issues.

In general, the Green Party and the Social Democrats scored the highest, while Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael scored the lowest, with the other parties falling somewhere in between.

irish election scorecard

1.      Increase Ireland’s development aid budget to 0.7% of national income by 2025 

Most parties (except People Before Profit) make a clear reference and commitment to increasing Ireland’s aid budget, but only the Green Party commits to reaching the target of providing 0.7% of national income to the aid budget by 2025. Sinn Féin, the Labour Party, Fianna Fáil and the Social Democrats do not set a specific date for when the target will be reached, while Fine Gael have set 2030 as their deadline.


2.      Deliver annual reductions in emissions of at least 8% a year, and support poorer countries to cope with the climate emergency 

Most parties commit to some level of emissions reduction, with the Green Party, People Before Profit and the Labour Party having by far the most ambitious targets. However, it is disappointing that none of the parties have committed to supporting poorer countries to cope with the climate crisis. The effects of climate change are hitting the most vulnerable hardest, and people in poorer countries are suffering with more frequent droughts and other climate-related disasters.


3.      Support sustainability by incentivising circular economy practices in the textile industry and ensuring more transparency and producer responsibility in the textile chain.

The corporate world has a huge impact on sustainability. Every decision can affect the most vulnerable people and ecosystems and can threaten livelihoods and exacerbate poverty.

The textile sector, especially in terms of fast fashion, has huge potential in terms of circular practices. We need strong regulations to ensure that tonnes of clothing don’t end up in the landfill every year and to secure living wages and good working conditions for workers.

The Green Party is the only party that refers to the circular economy in its manifesto committing ‘to gradually move Ireland from a linear economy to a circular one. This will be done by developing a stronger recovery industry, reducing imported goods, and developing an associated manufacturing industry.’ Unfortunately, none of the other parties mention how the circular economy could be developed in the textile sector in their manifestos.


4.      Invest in our care system to help address gender inequality

When we think of gender inequality, our minds tend to leap to wage packets and glass ceilings. But for women and girls, the gender gap may be better illustrated by the countless hours they spend caring for others, as well as cooking and cleaning. Women and girls carry out more than three-quarters of unpaid work in the world and make up two-thirds of the paid care workforce.

So, considering how care work and gender equality are so interlinked, it is good news that all parties acknowledged the important role care has in our society and pledge to support care work. The strongest commitments to invest in our care system were made by the Green Party, Sinn Féin, People Before Profit, the Labour Party and the Social Democrats.


5.      Support a fundamental reform of the global corporate tax system  

All parties agree that the current system is flawed, that corporate tax avoidance is a problem and that engagement is needed with the OECD BEPS corporate tax reform process. However, no party commits to supporting a fundamental reform of the corporate tax system, as set out by Oxfam Ireland. Some parties go further than others, with the Labour Party, the Social Democrats and People Before Profit committing to a minimum effective tax of 12.5 percent and Sinn Féin supporting greater transparency and ending the Intellectual Property loophole and the Apple Case appeal to the European Court of Justice. Meanwhile, People Before Profit and the Green Party support the ‘Robin Hood’ tax on financial transactions.


6.      Develop a rights-based approach to offering refuge to those fleeing persecution and climate breakdown, including an amended Family Reunification Act

Most parties (except Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil) commit to ending the Direct Provision system. However, there is no solid commitment from any of the parties with regards to reforming the EU asylum system or supporting EU search-and-rescue missions. Millions of people are being forced to leave their homes due to conflict, persecution and disaster. So, it is important to ensure we have a migration system based on human rights, and international law that promotes inclusivity, transparency and accountability.


7.      Pass mandatory human rights and environmental due diligence legislation in Ireland and support the call for such legislation to be passed at the EU level.

Although some businesses and financial institutions are already taking steps to meet their responsibility to respect human rights and the environment in their global operations, too many others are linked to serious abuses. Sinn Féin, the Green Party, Labour and Fianna Fáil commit to adhering to human rights and environmental standards in future trade agreements and procurement policies, especially in relation to Palestine. However, the Social Democrats is the only party to make a clear commitment to implement mandatory human rights due diligence, including reporting on human rights practices outside of Ireland.


Note: Our analysis is based on 2020 party manifestos.