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Desert locust and climate change: a call for improved global governance

A response to the latest IPCC climate report

by Dr Elena Lazutkaite | 2022-03-01

Desert locust and climate change: a call for improved global governance

The latest climate report on “Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability”, released on 28 February 2022 by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), emphasises the impact of global warming on increased and unpredictable transboundary pest outbreaks and the consequent need for improved governance to enhance resilience. The report, representing the work of hundreds of scientists, calls for immediate action on global emissions and uses the 2019 Desert Locust (See Box 5.9) upsurge (still ongoing) as a case study to illustrate climate change as a compounding effect on food insecurity.  

According to the IPCC report, “Rapid and large-scale dispersal of pests is already a major threat to food security, as exemplified by the recent outbreak of desert locusts, indicating the importance of international cooperation.” During the desert locust outbreak in 2020, an estimated one million people have been affected in Ethiopia alone that required food assistance. In addition to exacerbating hunger, the IPCC find that “…political and socioeconomic weaknesses such as armed conflict, limited financial resources, and lack of early actions compounded the impact of the current invasion and made it the most damaging in 70 years.”  

In our Scoping Paper on the Ongoing Desert Locust Crisis 2019-2021+, we, at TMG, examine the various dimensions of the ongoing desert locust campaign to better understand the crisis, as well as the effectiveness of international governance and where critical knowledge and implementation gaps persist. The gravity of the crisis is highlighted by the fact that the fiscal costs of operations and crop losses in East Africa and Yemen are estimated at USD 8.5 billion in 2020 alone

Further, we demonstrate the connection between the ongoing desert locust upsurge and the role of warming anomalies in the Indian Ocean, namely positive Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD) events. In concurrence with our conclusions, the IPCC report paints a bleak future, stating that “IODs are anticipated to occur twice as often, which could also increase the occurrence of pest outbreaks”. 

Given a changing climate, conditions favouring locust and other transboundary pest outbreaks will likely occur more frequently and intensively than previously, warranting the urgent need for international collaboration in research and multistakeholder discussions such as those initiated by our project

The conclusions in the IPCC report, namely that “Climate change increases the need for robust adaptation measures, such as transnational early warning systems, biological control mechanisms […] and further technological innovations in areas of […] remote sensing, and modeling for tracking and forecasting of movement” reflect TMG’s call for early warning and early action underpinned by an improved, multi-level governance system. 

In addition, while the IPCC report acknowledges that “A warmer climate increases the need for pesticides” and “the use of toxic agricultural chemicals also has human health and environmental risks”, it does not note that the ongoing campaign against the desert locust relies on highly toxic and harmful organophosphates such as Chlorpyrifos (which is a potential persistent organic pollutant, commonly referred to as a “forever chemical” and is banned in the European Union). As in the past, the current desert locust upsurge in the Horn of Africa and Western Asia has resulted in millions of litres of highly toxic organophosphates being unleashed into the environment. Countries did this mainly as a measure of “last resort” to mitigate transboundary swarms. Hence, it becomes an imperative to understand the “true cost” – not just the fiscal costs – to the environment and to human health caused by such toxic pesticides. In other words, we must make the invisible costs visible. Monetising the externalities can steer the establishment of improved governance and investments in early warning and control systems. 

The IPCC report, and TMG’s ongoing work on desert locust, make a strong case to reshape our thinking about transboundary threats under climate change.  In times of increasing pressure from transboundary pests and diseases, the interplay of science, infrastructure, innovative management strategies and a global governance is the prerequisite to design a more resilient future. If we do not invest now in surveillance for monitoring climate related pest distribution and damages, and in innovative strategies for controlling pests with minimal impacts on human and environmental health, people in affected countries will have to pay a high price in the near future.  

Read the publication “A Scoping Paper on the Ongoing Desert Locust Crisis 2019–2021+”.

Cover picture: Desert locusts stand on the local vegetation in Kipsing, near Oldonyiro, Isiolo county. Credit: ©FAO/Sven Torfinn.

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