Locusts and COVID-19: How weather data can help build resilient, sustainable food systems

    Locusts and COVID-19: How weather data can help build resilient, sustainable food systems

    Business Call to Action member company, aWhere, has been using their historical observed weather and forecast data to understand how weather variability is impacting society, and how to apply such insights to design more resilient and sustainable food and health systems against the backdrop of climate change. aWhere’s Lauren Allognon writes about how using weather data-driven insights could help with providing relevant and actionable information to decision-makers, protecting smallholder farmers and mitigating the effects of the compounding crises such as that of the locust invasion and COVID-19. 

    The second swarm of locusts has been descending on East Africa and putting the food security of millions of people at risk. East Africa has been dealing with locust outbreaks since earlier this year as they devour large areas of food crops and rangeland. A locust can eat its weight in food each day and a one square kilometre swarm can eat the same amount of food as 35,000 people.

    The locust crisis will further decrease food production in a region where millions of people are already considered food insecure. East Africa is home to cattle and other livestock whose grazing land is also threatened by the locusts. Pastoralists in Sudan, Ethiopia and Kenya will be hit the hardest by livestock-related impacts which are expected to cost US $8.5 billion in damages during 2020. Compounded with food availability issues caused by the COVID-19 pandemic such as trade restrictions, supply chain disruptions along with extreme weather events such as flooding, the region is dealing with multiple threats to its food supply.

    While the locusts arrived before the pandemic, due to COVID-19 restrictions, supplies to battle the locust outbreak didn’t arrive until the mid-March, when a second wave of locusts began to hatch.

    Weather is a key driver of these global challenges that shapes interactions between climate adaptation, food security and COVID-19. aWhere, has been looking at these interactions using their historical observed weather and forecast data to understand how weather variability is impacting society and how to apply such insights to design more resilient and sustainable food and health systems against the backdrop of climate change.

    How does climate change impact locust outbreaks?

    There has been a lot of research as to why this current outbreak has been so devastating to crops. Some reports have pointed to climate change as a major factor in locust outbreaks with the primary argument being that climate change has altered the Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD). This has resulted in places like Australia becoming drier (and more prone to wildfires) and East Africa wetter (and more prone to pests like locusts).

    Experts say that one key factor in the recent swarms of locusts is the unusually wet weather over the past 18 months in East Africa. Heavy rains in March 2020 have also been blamed for the second wave of locusts which helped establish “favourable breeding conditions for yet another generation of locusts in the Horn of Africa. These will emerge as young swarms in June, just as many farmers start to harvest,” said Antonio Querido, FAO Uganda.

    “There is a link between climate change and the unprecedented locust crisis plaguing [East Africa],” UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has said. And “warmer seas mean more cyclones generating the perfect breeding ground for locusts…” according to this Bloomberg report.

    How weather data can mitigate risks for farmers

    Weather data-driven insight helps mitigate the risks of climate change by providing relevant and actionable information to decision-makers to support data-driven decisions. There is a growing need to understand the risks of weather variability and put in place adaptation plans before these events compound with already stressed economies leading to food insecurity, pest outbreaks (locusts), disease (vector-borne or infectious diseases) and infrastructure failure.

    aWhere provides agricultural intelligence data for farmers, commercial growers and policymakers. Their weather agronomic information service is used by smallholder farmers across sub-Saharan Africa. By producing a high volume of valuable data for a wide range of customers, they can provide weather and agronomic data to smallholder farmers for US $1 or less through their last-mile partners. This cost is recovered either through payments by the smallholder farmers themselves or by others along the value chain. Affordability is a critical component of aWhere’s business model.

    With increasing weather variability affecting agriculture, real-time agricultural information is vital, from farmers to retailers, crop advisors to extension services, microfinance and insurance providers to downstream markets. “Localized weather insights that aWhere provides, supports farmer’s daily decision-making on actions from sowing, weeding, fertilizing to harvest, and local weather insight benefits input providers and buyers and improves food security,” explains CEO and Founder of aWhere John Corbett.

    Weather insights for building resilience

    East Africa and parts of Asia have been feeling the impacts of the locusts but there are signs that the swarms are heading west across the Sahel which could bring additional uncertainty to an already fragile region. As the COVID-19 outbreak accelerates across Africa, 43 million people in West Africa will likely be in urgent need of food assistance. This region is already facing threats of conflict, climate change and the pandemic – an outbreak of locusts could push millions into poverty and food insecurity. A second-generation of immature swarms have now started to form in northwest Kenya.

    The risk of the locust spread into parts of West Africa is currently low but this can change very quickly based on the weather patterns such as rainfall and wind; the former providing vegetation for locusts to eat and the latter helping move them into new regions. According to the FAO, the locusts will likely arrive in West Africa at the end of June and into July 2020 which could threaten crop production in the region. Pre-emptive action in West Africa is critical to decrease the potential damage from the desert locust.

    Investments and planning must be scaled to prepare for and react to this threat and weather data can generate insights to support planning to manage pest outbreaks or plan infrastructure in Africa to deliver economic resilience to climate change.

    “aWhere’s localized weather data provides insight into where the locusts could migrate based on the rainfall patterns across Africa and the Middle East. The severity of future desert locust swarms could be anticipated,” says Corbett.

    With 1.9 million virtual weather stations that cover the world’s daily weather, aWhere enables its partners to look at local trends and combined with other data to generate new insights on how to best adapt to improve lives and live within the ecological boundaries of our planet, he adds.