/ 23 December 2021

Locust swarms loom in the wake of wetter weather

Safrica Environment Locusts
Brown locusts in South Africa are expected to start spreading in record numbers, accelerated by record rainfall in December. (Wikus de Wet/AFP)

Brown locusts in South Africa are expected to start spreading in record numbers, accelerated by record rainfall in December, putting the agriculture development department on high alert.

The department said trained local contractors were responding to outbreaks, and encouraged land owners, including those not staying on their farms, to go and inspect the presence of locusts and report them either to itself or their agricultural unions.

“The challenge towards our locust control campaign is unreported locust swamps in unoccupied farms, game and environmental parks. These unreported locust swarms go unnoticed and end up growing and becoming adults and fly to the crop and pasture land and cause extensive damage,” it said.

Rain in the Karoo region, where the brown locust is endemic, as well as in the Eastern, Western and Northern Cape in September gave rise to the current outbreak, as conditions became ripe for eggs to hatch. Those eggs are now expected to become adult brown locusts, which will start to travel across provinces. 

The agriculture department said it had appointed and trained locust control contractors in all areas which have experienced locust outbreaks, adding: “All these contractors were provided with insecticide, spraying pumps and protective clothing to enable them to control the outbreak.”

In 2020 the National Agricultural Marketing Council (NAMC) said chemical solutions were most effective but posed risks to peoples’ health and biodiversity. It said there was a need to find long-lasting measures to control and mitigate against the negative effects inflicted on livelihoods and agricultural value chains by locust outbreaks.

The NAMC said the pests could destroy 80% to 100% of the production in crops and pastures and recommended that early intervention include mapping out hotspots and surveillance for early intervention. 

“Although the chemical control measure has been the most successful means used in many countries and over the years, it has also been greatly criticised due to its detrimental effects on humans, animals and biodiversity in general,” it said in its advisory note.

Agriculture economist Wandile Sihlobo believes South African farmers and authorities are well equipped to deal with locust infestations, and that the insects have not advanced to crop growing areas.

Above-normal rainfall has been recorded in most parts of the country this month as a result of the re-emergence of La Niña conditions. The South African Weather Service said there was a greater chance of above-normal rainfall during between January and May next year.

“The rain has been both a blessing and curse in South Africa. In a sense that some farmers experienced a delay in planting and there are those who planted earlier who may have been affected by heavy rain and flooding. But still, rain does more good than bad, so it is welcomed. We hope that by January it will continue to be good for farmers. We need about a week of sunshine to plant,” Sihlobo said. 

The World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) said the observed La Niña would cool the Pacific Ocean surface temperatures and affect winds, rainfall and temperature leading to drier drought conditions in some parts of the world, and flooding in others. 

“Human induced climate change amplifies the impacts of naturally occurring events like La Niña and is increasingly influencing our weather patterns, in particular through more intense heat and drought – and the associated risk of wildfires – as well as record-breaking deluges of rainfall and flooding,” WMO secretary-general Professor Petteri Taalas said.