WDR 2005 - Chapter 3: Locusts in West Africa: early warning, late response

Over 9 million people faced severe food shortages in 2005 across West Africa’s Sahel region, because of poor harvests following years of drought and the 2004 locust plague. Villagers scavenged ant-hills for stray grains of food. Child malnutrition and infant mortality soared. But who cared? Warnings went unheeded and responses to appeals for food aid were sluggish. The Sahel crisis could have been avoided – so why wasn’t it?

Since the end of the 1960s, West Africa had experienced a harsh, persistent drought. However, rains during 2003-04 created ideal breeding conditions for the desert locust. Swarms born in the mountains of North Africa invaded the Sahel in July 2003, then bred themselves.

News of large locust swarms emerged from the region in June 2003. That October, the FAO issued its first warning to donors of an impending plague and advised that control efforts be reinforced. In February 2004, an FAO appeal for US$ 9 million was launched, but failed to raise any funds. Donors were distracted by Darfur. Meanwhile, the locusts multiplied. By July, FAO warned that the situation was "extremely critical". It urgently appealed for additional aid totalling US$ 100 million.

A month later, the Sahel was gripped by its worst locust invasion since the late 1980s. Officials in Mauritania and Mali, the hardest-hit countries at the time, reported they had nowhere near enough pesticides or spraying equipment. In Mali, the sole helicopter assigned to locust control only started spraying in late August. The international press started showing dramatic images of helpless farmers beating pots or swinging sticks to try and chase away the swarms eating their crops.

At a regional crisis meeting at the end of August, Senegal announced it was sending in the army to make ‘war’ on the locusts. Six weeks later, the UN’s Jan Egeland said the plague represented a greater threat to livelihoods than "any of the wars in the African region." The livelihoods of 150 million people were being devoured before the eyes of an indifferent world.

Slowly, donors provided the long-requested funds. Though spraying helped to control the swarms, it came too late for many farmers – especially those in isolated areas who had lost most of their crops before spraying started.

In all, the swarms devastated 1.6 million hectares of farmland in Mauritania, consuming half the entire cereal crop. In Niger, locusts ate 15 per cent of the country’s cereals, but 40 per cent of the fodder on which livestock depend. By the end of 2004, control measures by the Moroccan and Algerian governments, plus a cold winter in the Atlas Mountains, brought the plague under control.

But that was by no means the end of the disaster. The onslaught occurred during the ‘lean period’ ahead of the annual harvests. During spring 2005, subsistence farmers had to eat the seed corn they were planning to plant. They sold their animals to buy food. But, as staple food prices doubled, the value of livestock plunged.

From April 2005, reports of severe malnutrition and food insecurity were widespread. A third of Mauritania and Niger – 4.8 million people – faced hunger. One in three children under five years suffered malnutrition in Mauritania and Mali. In Niger, 350,000 children under five faced serious malnutrition. Infant mortality reached record levels. Acute respiratory infections spread. In Burkina Faso, 3 million people were affected. Villagers collected tree leaves to prepare as their daily meal.

There was widespread migration of pastoralist families to urban areas in search of food and work. Tensions flared between farmers and newly-arrived cattle-breeders desperately looking for fresh pasture. In Burkina Faso, an entire village of 500 homes was burned down in a revenge attack.

How could the situation have deteriorated so badly? One of the lessons from 2004 was the weakness of national early warning systems and locust control teams. Although locust officers in Europe and the region used satellite images and digital maps to follow the swarms, they could do little to stop them. The lack of crop duster aircraft, pesticides and know-how among national control teams was dire. Regional mechanisms to prevent the spread of the swarms were equally weak. Monitoring and fighting locust plagues requires significant regional cooperation, as the insect knows no boundaries.

"The tardiness of the international community to respond to the emergency is in large part responsible for the high costs of containment," said a report from USAID. Donors agreed that while US$ 1 million could have contained the threat in July 2003, the delayed response meant that, ultimately, 100 times that figure was needed.

Who was to blame for the failure to respond quicker? Some donors said FAO woke up too late to the crisis. They complained that FAO's warnings were not insistent enough. But what FAO failed to realize was that most donors and governments in the region had forgotten how terrible a locust plague could be.

FAO countered that most donors didn’t react until the plague hit the headlines. Without the TV images broadcast to the developed world, donors would have reacted even more slowly and less generously, they claimed. For the future, FAO is considering more aggressive communication efforts as soon as the first swarms emerge.

One regional expert argued that aid agencies failed to collect the necessary nutritional information about the food situation. Without this basic data, the entire flow of information was sketchy, piecemeal and anecdotal, leaving donors confused as to the scope of the disaster and journalists uninterested as they didn’t understand the problem

Past experience proves that aid agencies have to work hard to engage the media and donors in promoting and responding to hidden, chronic disasters. Issuing appeals and press releases is not enough. Multimedia strategies to convey the threat and its possible risks are needed.

The locust invasion of 2004 had devastating consequences. Millions of people faced malnutrition, at best, and starvation, at worst. This could have been avoided if early warning alarm bells had been listened to. Once again, in mid-2005, aid organizations called for relief efforts to limit the food crisis that emerged as a result of the drought and locust swarms. And once again, many aid workers had the familiar feeling that their calls were falling on deaf ears.


Properly financed and managed early warning: Funds remaining from locust appeals are being used to strengthen regional and national control mechanisms for early warning and response. But donors and governments in locust-prone countries must ensure these funds are allocated to maintain the long-term quality and capacities of these institutions. This requires a political commitment to transparent management and disbursement of funds.

Better data on impact: Data collection has been piecemeal, making it difficult to grasp the scope of the problem at both regional and national levels. Aid agencies should exchange data to build up a bigger picture of the extent of the problem and share this information with the international media and donors.

Stronger information campaigns: The best way to stir the donor community into action is to transmit calls for assistance through the world's media into the living rooms of voters in the developed world. Aid organizations should pursue more proactive, innovative multimedia strategies to raise awareness of emerging humanitarian crises to as wide an audience as possible, to increase pressure on governments to respond.

Regional mechanism to create greater awareness of threats: More efforts should be made, at a regional level, to maintain awareness among donors, governments and local populations of the threat of locust plagues and famine, and how best to prevent and respond to future disasters. The major lesson from the 2004 plague is that most people had forgotten how devastating locusts could be.