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Locust Plague: About 20 Million People Are Experiencing High Degree of Food Insecurity in East Africa

Desert locust outbreak is threatening food security and livelihoods reeling from drought and deadly floods in the region. Dense clouds of the predatory insects have spread from Ethiopia and Somalia into Kenya. Experts estimate that the Locust numbers could increase 500 times by June if unchecked, spreading to Uganda and South Sudan. The difficult to control worse infestation in decades, in the region’s history is becoming a plague that will devastate crops and pasture in the poorest and most vulnerable part of the world.

Farmer Kanini Ndunda reaches up with a shovel to shake tree branches to chase away swarms of desert locusts from her crops, in Katitika village, Kitui county, Kenya Friday, Jan. 24, 2020. Desert locusts have swarmed into Kenya by the hundreds of millions from Somalia and Ethiopia, countries that haven’t seen such numbers in a quarter-century, destroying farmland and threatening an already vulnerable region. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis)

The locust attack is the biggest in Ethiopia and Somalia in 25 years, and the biggest in Kenya in 70 years. The current invasion is known as an “upsurge” when an entire region is affected, however, if it gets worse and cannot be contained, over a year or more, it would become what is known as a “plague” of locusts, according FAO.

The pastoralists were just evolving from three years of drought and that recovery from a dry spell usually takes them up to five years. There have been six major desert locust plagues in the 1900s, the last of which was in 1987-1989. The last major upsurge was in 2003-2005. The massive swarms entered Kenya in December and have torn through pastureland in the north and centre of the country.

Extreme Weather Effects

East Africa is one of the most vulnerable to climate change. The locusts were the latest symptom of extreme weather conditions that also saw a 2019 drought end in one of the wettest rainy seasons in four decades in parts of East Africa, with mass floods killing hundreds. The region witnessed eight cyclones in 2019, the most in a single year since 1976.

Guleid Artan, from the regional expert group the Climate Prediction and Applications Centre (ICPAC) told a press conference in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, on Friday, that the locust outbreak were the latest symptom of extreme conditions that saw 2019 start with a drought and end in one of the wettest rainy seasons in four decades in some parts with floods killing hundreds across East Africa that this could lead to a major food security problem.

While farmers were relatively lucky as their crops had already matured or been harvested by the time they arrived, herders face another heavy blow as vegetation for their animals is consumed by the insects. Many were just slowly recovering from three years of drought, a process which usually takes up to five years.

Difficult To Resist

As thick clouds of the insects descend on plants and blacken the sky, Kenyans have been seen shooting in the air, banging cans and racing around, waving sticks in desperation to shoo them away. Aerial pesticide spraying is considered the best way to get rid of the locust swarms. U.N. officials say a large-scale spraying operation must begin now, before the rains start in March and the locust-breeding season begins. Yet insecurity in Somalia was hampering some spraying operations.

This red sea desert locust is among the most dangerous migratory pests in the world. A single locust can travel 150 kilometres and eat its own weight in food about two grams each day. A small swarm can consume the equivalent of food for 35,000 people in a day.

However, Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimated one swarm in Kenya at around 2,400 square kilometres (about 930 square miles) an area almost the size of Moscow meaning it could contain up to 200 billion locusts. They often occur in remote areas of Ethiopia and Somalia and can move up to 150km (90 miles) in one day. And if the voracious locusts are not brought under control by the start of the next planting and rainy season typically around March farmers could see their crops decimated.

More Funds Needed

The spokesman of Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Jens Laerke, said the U.N. has released $15 million from its Central Emergency Response Fund to counter the outbreak.

FAO subregional coordinator for Eastern Africa, David Phiri, said “… we must act immediately and at scale to combat and contain this invasion. As the rains start in March there will be a new wave of locust breeding. Now is, therefore, the best time to control the swarms and safeguard people’s livelihoods and food security, and avert further worsening of the food crisis.” About $76 million is needed to step up aerial pesticide spraying, the only effective way to combat the crisis, the U.N. says.

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