Preparing for an invasion: Desert Locust threat in West Africa

Control operations ready if East Africa swarms move west

Countries in the Sahel are on high alert in case conditions become favourable for Desert Locusts in East Africa to invade west. ©FAO/Luis Tato


Large numbers of Desert Locust swarms that have formed in Kenya and Ethiopia since January could move west in the coming weeks, threatening fields, pastures and livelihoods in West Africa.

But national surveillance operations are in full swing, and control measures are ready because of the major early warning and rapid response effort coordinated by FAO.

“We have witnessed the unprecedented Desert Locust threat to food security and livelihoods in East Africa, and we are doing everything we can to prevent a similar crisis repeating in the Sahel region, which is already experiencing several ongoing crises,” said Coumba Sow, FAO’s Resilience Coordinator for the region.

The Desert Locust is considered the most destructive migratory pest in the world. A single swarm covering one square kilometre contains up to 80 million locusts and can eat the same amount of food in one day as about 35 000 people. Locust numbers increase 20 times in three months with every new generation.

According to FAO’s Desert Locust Watch, swarms that bred in spring in East Africa are now shifting to the summer breeding areas, and countries west of the Horn of Africa should remain on high alert. Most of the swarms in northwest Kenya are expected to ride winds carrying them north to cross South Sudan into Sudan. Unless it rains more in Sudan’s desert, providing favourable breeding conditions for the pests, the locusts will not stay in Sudan for long and would instead move west through the Sahel of West Africa in search of food and favourable breeding areas. 

Left/top: Training in the safe and effective use of pesticides are a key part of FAO’s preparations for a possible locust emergency. ©FAO/Luis Tato; Right/bottom: Pesticides in countries less at risk have been relocated to countries at the front line of a possible Desert Locust invasion. ©FAO

Preventing a food security crisis

FAO has been working closely with countries at risk in the region to coordinate a major preparation campaign in case the worst happens.

“We have been preparing for this potential crisis for many months,” said Mohamed Lemine Hamouny, Executive Secretary of FAO’s Commission for Controlling the Desert Locust in the Western Region (CLCPRO).

FAO, through CLCPRO and in collaboration with countries at risk, has prepared a regional locust emergency action plan, which can quickly set up control and environmental safeguard measures should the swarms move west.

National contingency plans are now activated, and an early warning alert system of 32 trained surveillance teams equipped with the FAO-designed eLocust3 monitoring tool are collecting and analysing data. These important monitoring efforts contribute to FAO’s global early warning system that keeps countries and partners informed of the current situation and latest forecasts.

Teams in Chad in particular are closely monitoring the situation because the country neighbours Sudan and is the front line of defence against a possible locust invasion in West Africa.

As part of FAO’s work, helicopters are being deployed to Chad for surveillance, and drones will be used in hard-to-reach or insecure areas in Chad, Niger, Mali and Mauritania. Two operational bases have also been established in Chad and Mauritania, which are ready to launch control efforts to fight locust swarm infestations. 

Having worked closely with countries at risk in West Africa, FAO’s major early warning and rapid response campaign means that countries are ready in case desert locusts move west through the Sahel in search of food and favourable breeding areas. ©FAO/Michael Tewelde

On high alert

The CLCPRO has also coordinated a programme throughout the region where countries less at risk from the locusts have donated pesticides and gear for advance placement in those countries that are more at risk. The programme allows at-risk countries to quickly access pesticides, avoiding lengthy procurement procedures, while less at-risk countries can avoid accumulating excess pesticides or having them potentially expire before they can be used.

FAO coordinates the transfers and transportation of these materials and ensures that the donated pesticides meet laboratory certification. FAO has also carried out training sessions in Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Senegal on the safe and effective use of pesticides and has helped countries prepare national contingency plans that include community messaging on pesticide safety.

Given current threat levels, ground control operations - meaning using hand-held sprayers or sprayers mounted onto vehicles - are being prioritised for the time-being. 

Training sessions in safe and effective pesticide application have been carried out in Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Senegal, and in some countries biopesticides have also been procured and positioned.

The CLCPRO also manages a small emergency fund, fed by the voluntary contributions of the Commission’s member nations, so that countries can react quickly even before donor funds arrive.

For now, countries remain on high alert. “Because invasions can be difficult to predict, we must be well prepared in advance and ready to respond as quickly and effectively as possible when swarms arrive,” Harmouny said. 

While preparing for potential locust invasions, FAO is also supporting countries to strengthen their food security and livelihoods plans, ensuring that people maintain their ability to support and feed themselves during this, or any other type, of crisis.

Learn more

2. Zero hunger, 9. Industry innovation and infrastructure, 15. Life on land