When Menelik - previous Emperor of Ethiopia - defeated Italian colonial troops during the famous battle of Adwa in 1896, he could not have known that, more than 150 years later, another invader - an army of locusts - would disturb the peace of Abyssinia.

For generations northern Ethiopians have used their land for farming and animal breeding. However, times might have changed, as hungry desert locusts continue to plague the country, causing many Ethiopians to question whether there is a future in farming.

“We sleep as if everything is fine, but in one night everything will be destroyed, and nothing is okay,” said Danse Odda – an Ethiopian farmer.

No more than 7cm in length and weighing under than two grams, this insect might not appear too destructive at first glance. However, in vast swarms, they are capable of decimating millions of hectares of crops, destroying the income of thousands of families, and dismantling long standing communities; all in a matter of hours.

Arriving during harvest season of 2020, locusts decimated fields of crops, eradicating the ability of farmers to make vital income through selling produce at markets.

For some, locusts destroyed the ability to even feed their own families: “Before the locust invasion, we were the providers of crops to the market. But now we are the customers. The price of food skyrocketed, as a result of the lack of crops available,” said Emebet Beyene, Odda’s daughter-in-law.

“People who were relatively rich bought the food, while the remaining starved. It was like survival of the richest. This world is really unfair.”

The loss of crops has created a spiral of hunger, along with bringing about an economic and structural downturn for rural communities.

After the locust invasion destroyed crops and eradicated possibilities for work, many young people moved to urban parts of the country for a new life. In doing so, they left not only the ravaged crops, but also the elderly community who relied on them.

“The city almost died,” Beyene explained: “It wasn’t only the youth who left but also the teachers. Teachers weren’t being paid because the parents couldn’t afford them. Since most teachers and shop owners left, it was difficult to get some services like education and shopping.”

The Herald:

Locusts are present in Ethiopia all year-round. Most of the time they are solitary creatures and their impact is minimal.

However, the locust swarms arriving in Ethiopia originated from elsewhere. They had started out as a small group within the Arabian desert.

Benefitting from the hot climate and the effects of an unusually long cyclone in 2018, which made Arabian desert land more fruitful, the small number of insects rapidly bred, fed on the increased food supply, and then moved on as supplies dwindled.

Dr Daniel Erresa, Lecturer at the Ambo University Institute, 74 miles west of Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa, studied the events of 2018 by comparing the locusts found in the arid parts of Ethiopia with those who arrived from elsewhere.

He said: “The results show that the foreign locusts are very small in size compared to the local locusts.

“These changes aren’t for the better - they [the locusts] have become more aggressive. These changes have helped the foreign population to travel long distances within a short period of time.”

According to the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), locusts can fly at a speed of about 10-12 miles per hour, covering anything between three to 80 miles per day.

Swarms can range from less than one square kilometre to several hundred square kilometres in size, with at least 40 million - and sometimes as many as 80 million - locusts present in each square kilometre.

While swarms happen intermittently and have happened throughout time, climate change and global warming could play a central part when it comes to the frequency in which these swarms occur.

Research has shown that Africa contains seven out of 10 of the countries that are considered the most threatened by climate change globally; including Ethiopia. For locusts in particular, further studies have shown that global warming and other climatic changes such as the rise in temperature in oceans is linked to the development of large-scale cyclones similar to the ones that helped locusts to thrive in the Arabian desert.

In Ethiopia, there were widespread plagues as a result of locust swarms throughout the 20th century. Normally it is estimated that such outbreaks are limited to roughly every 25 years. However, Ethiopia has been hit by destructive locust swarms both in 2013 and in 2020, swarms which Odda described as “the worst” she has ever seen.

Keeping the 1.5C target alive directly relates to preventing such natural disasters from increasingly happening in Ethiopia and other parts of the world already struggling with the direct effects of climate change.

Visiting Ethiopia in February this year, COP26 President Alok Sharma said: “Globally, we must go further and faster to protect people from the worst impacts of climate change, and climate vulnerable countries should be at the heart of that process.”