Food security at risk as locust swarms devour crops in east Africa

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Soldiers open a container holding desert locusts they have caught this week in Katakwi, Uganda. Picture: Luke Dray/Getty Images
Soldiers open a container holding desert locusts they have caught this week in Katakwi, Uganda. Picture: Luke Dray/Getty Images

The Horn of Africa region has been hit by the worst invasion of desert locusts in 25 years, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) said.

The invasion poses an unprecedented threat to food security in the entire subregion – which includes Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia – where more than 19 million people in East Africa are already experiencing a high degree of food insecurity, the agency said.

In Kenya, it is the worst invasion in 70 years, and government is spending $5 million (about R74.3 million) to manage the swarms of locust and prevent spreading.

Invasions of desert locusts are irregular in the region, the last instance occurred in 2007 at a much smaller scale. “This current invasion of desert locusts is significantly larger in magnitude and scale than previously experienced in Kenya and across east Africa,” said Stephen Njoka, the director general of the Desert Locust Control Organisation.

Irregular weather and climate conditions last year, including heavy rains between October and December, are suspected to have contributed to the spread of locusts in the region.

A cyclone that swept through northeastern Somalia and eastern Ethiopia in December, bringing heavy rains to the area, created ideal conditions for the insects to breed for the next six months, said Keith Cressman, FAO’s senior locust forecasting officer.

Large swarm areas of northeastern Somalia and eastern Ethiopia are not being detected or treated, leaving the area vulnerable to new generations of locusts.

If locusts are left untreated by control measures, swarms can potentially grow 400 times larger by June, Cressman said.

Unexpected and unpredictable rainfall in northern Kenya that carried into last month also continues to enable favourable breeding ground.

As large swarms continue to move into Kenya and multiply, “you have a recipe for the situation to deteriorate further”, said Cressman.

“Under a worst-case scenario,” the invasion could become a plague if it is not contained quickly, the FAO said in a statement.

EMERGENCY ACTION PLAN

The locusts have already devastated large swaths of food and pasture in the region, but the extent of the damage cannot yet be determined since new swarms are spreading across the borders everyday, said Njoka.

While Njoka remains positive that the pesticides are working, the rapid and constant movement of the locusts makes it difficult to assess just how effective it has been.

The FAO has escalated the situation to the highest disaster level, leading the agency to put in place a six-month emergency action plan and suggest it will take about $70 million to contain the swarms across the region.

The desert locust is the most destructive of all food-eating locust species because of its speed and ability to multiply rapidly. According to the FAO, the insects do not attack people or animals and there is no evidence they carry diseases that can harm humans.

Desert locust swarms can stay in the air for very long periods, travelling up 130km or more a day, the FAO said. A swarm can vary from one square kilometre to several hundred square kilometres with up to 80 million adult locusts in each square kilometre of a swarm.

A swarm the size of Paris can devour as much food as half the population of France, according to the FAO.

Uganda has started to spray swarms of desert locusts that invaded over the weekend, posing a major threat to livestock and key crops such as coffee, a government official said on Monday.

The plague has already caused extensive damage to pastures and crops and threatened food security in several countries in the east and Horn of Africa, including Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya.

A single swarm of the insects can measure 40km wide by 60km long, according to the FAO.

“We are using motorised sprayers, a drone and manual sprayers,” said Stephen Byantwale, commissioner for crop protection at the ministry of agriculture.

“They [locusts] are spreading like wildfire, so they are a real, major threat.”

The FAO warned in a report on Monday that locusts were continuing to breed in the Horn of Africa, which would lead to more insects in Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya, with new swarms forming next month and in April.

“There is an unprecedented threat to food security and livelihoods in the region,” the UN agency said.

The swarms entered Uganda in the northeastern region of Karamoja on Sunday. Byantwale said if their movement was unchallenged, they were expected to move further south, threatening fields of crops that include coffee, rice, maize and others.

Coffee is one of Uganda’s major exports and a key source of foreign exchange. The country is Africa’s biggest exporter of the coffee beans.

Byantwale said the foliage-devouring swarms were also a major threat to the Kidepo National Park found in the northeast of Uganda and one of the biggest in the country where visitors can see giraffes, zebras and buffalo.

Tourism is also a key hard currency earner. – Reuters

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