Swarms of locusts threaten Indian livelihoods and food production

Swarms of locusts are tearing through India in the worst invasion in decades, threatening farmers’ livelihoods and food production as overstretched authorities combat coronavirus.

The invasions have been linked to climate change, with a high number of cyclones and erratic rainfall around the Indian Ocean fuelling outbreaks of the voracious insects from east Africa to south Asia.

Locusts have already wreaked havoc elsewhere, jeopardising food security in countries like Somalia and Ethiopia and prompting Pakistan to declare a national emergency in February.

The pests struck India earlier this year, but the unusual weather has now contributed to the early arrival of another wave, which was not expected to cross the Pakistani border until later in the year in June or July. The swarms are now criss-crossing hundreds of miles of land through northern India, filling the sky as they fly overhead. They are devouring vegetation along the way and even overrunning large cities like Jaipur.

“It’s the most challenging [outbreak] that they have had to face since 1993,” said Keith Cressman, a senior locust forecaster at the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, referring to India and Pakistan. “The central and northern states of India will have locust swarms moving back and forth” for the next month, he added.

The invasions come as India battles health and environmental crises on multiple fronts. The number of coronavirus infections in the country is rising fast, crossing 200,000 this week despite more than two months of lockdown. Some say the quarantine measures have partly complicated the ability to mobilise resources in response to the locust threat.

At the same time, winds from a super cyclone that hit eastern India last month are expected to help propel the swarms through the middle of the country. Another cyclone pounded Mumbai on the west coast on Wednesday.

Ganesh Nanote, a farmer who lives near the border of Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh in central India, is cultivating papayas and is soon to plant cotton too. After locusts arrived near the area, he is now preparing to employ tactics to try to keep the pests off his land, from spraying pesticides to having neighbours bang pots and make loud noises to ward off the insects.

“I am thinking of different ways to protect my farm,” he said. “I am afraid it will destroy my papayas.”

Locusts are formidably destructive. Swarms can number in the hundreds of millions of insects and can travel over 100km a day, with each locust eating its own body weight in food per day.

The outbreaks are categorised by the FAO as an upsurge, one level below a plague. Mr Cressman said they pose a greater threat to food security in east Africa, where countries are less prepared to respond than India, which faces regular — if usually less severe — onslaughts. 

But the infestation in India, which is bracing for more locust arrivals from the Horn of Africa in the coming weeks, risks taking a toll on vulnerable rural communities already struggling with the fallout of the coronavirus pandemic and lockdown.

“You’ve had one cyclone hitting India, you have Covid, now you have another cyclone,” said Sunita Narain, director-general of the Centre for Science and Environment, an environmental research group. “These crises . . . will make the poor even poorer. They’re hit because they’re most vulnerable to infection. They’re hit because their livelihoods go.”