Figure of the week: Armyworm, locusts, and drought in Southern and East Africa

Amy Copley
Amy Copley Former Senior Research Analyst and Project Coordinator - Africa Growth Initiative

February 16, 2017

Amy Copley notes growing areas of famine due to climate change, locusts, and the introduction of a new, more destructive armyworm.

While Southern Africa continues to recover from its worst drought in 35 years, the region faces several emergent threats that pose serious risks to food security in the region. From February 14-16, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) held an emergency meeting in Harare, Zimbabwe with regional experts from 13 countries to address the fall armyworm infestation that has already damaged crops in South Africa, Zambia, and Zimbabwe and is now present in Malawi, Mozambique, and Namibia. The fall armyworm, which is thought to have migrated from the Americas to Southern Africa by attaching itself to a commercial plane or to imported plants, is ravaging the region’s main staple crops, including maize, wheat, millet, and rice.

To control the spread of the outbreak, experts at the meeting recommended the use of chemical pesticides and natural or biological options such as digging trenches around fields and deploying predators such as birds to eat the caterpillars. Zambia reported that in December 2016 its national air force sent pesticides across the country to combat the growing infestation, which has already destroyed 129,000 hectares of crops, according to officials. In addition, red locusts are currently breeding in central Zambia and could reach swarms of 40 million or even 50 million strong, according to the International Red Locust Control Organization for Central and Southern Africa. Such a swarm would be capable of eating 80,000 metric tons of crops and traveling 20 to 100 kilometers a day. In response to these threats, FAO Subregional Coordinator for Southern Africa David Phiri stated at the meeting that “…countries need to maintain and, where needed, expand diagnostic laboratory, surveillance, and response capacity as well as conduct assessments and research to enable rapid responses to recurrent and new threats.”

Meanwhile, in East Africa, some parts of the region, particularly the Horn of Africa, are facing a severe drought because of La Niña and warm West Pacific sea surface temperatures, which have curbed harvests of staple foods, pushed up prices, and reduced access to food. According to the latest report from the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWSNET), rainfall between October and December 2016 was less than 30 percent of the average from 1981-2010 in Somalia and Ethiopia’s Somali Region. Kenya and Southern Ethiopia also experienced late and weak rains. Figure 1 below illustrates the countries facing acute food insecurity in Southern and East Africa (as well as conflict-affected countries such as the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nigeria, and South Sudan) are facing in the medium term, according to FEWSNET.

Figure 1: Acute food insecurity: Medium term (February-May 2017)

FEWSNET Food insecuritySource: The Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWSNET),