Countries in East Africa are racing against time to prevent new swarms of locusts wreaking havoc on crops and livelihoods after the worst infestation in generations.
A lack of expertise in pest control is not the only problem: Kenya temporarily ran out of pesticides, Ethiopia needs more aircraft and Somalia and Yemen, torn by civil war, can’t guarantee exterminators’ safety.
Locust swarms have been recorded in the region since biblical times, but unusual weather patterns exacerbated by climate change created ideal conditions for insect numbers to boom, scientists say.
Warmer seas create more rain, wakening dormant eggs and cyclones that disperse swarms are stronger and more frequent.
In Ethiopia locusts reached the fertile Rift Valley farmland and stripped grazing grounds in Kenya and Somalia. Swarms can travel up to 150 km a day and contain between 40-80 million locusts per square kilometre.
If left unchecked, locusts in East Africa could explode 400-fold by June. That would devastate harvests in a region with more than 19 million hungry people, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) warns.
Uganda deployed the military. Kenya trained hundreds of young cadets to spray. Lacking pesticides, some security forces in Somalia shot anti-aircraft guns at swarms darkening the skies.
Everyone is racing with rain expected in March: the next generation of larvae is emerging from the ground as farmers plant seed.
“The second wave is coming,” said Cyril Ferrand, FAO head of resilience for Eastern Africa. “As crops are planted, locusts will eat everything.”
The impact so far on agriculture, which generates about a third of East Africa’s economic output, is unknown, but FAO is using satellite images to assess the damage.
In Kenya, the region’s wealthiest and most stable country, locusts are mostly in the semi-arid north, although some crops are affected, said Stanley Kipkoech, a senior official at the Ministry of Agriculture.
This month, Kenya ran out of pesticide for about 10 days, he said. Farmers watched helplessly as crops were devoured.
In Ethiopia, government can only afford to rent four aircraft for aerial spraying, but it needs at least twice that number to contain the outbreak before harvesting in March, Zebdewos Salato, director of plant protection at the Ministry of Agriculture, told Reuters.
“We are running out of time,” he said.
Ethiopia’s single pesticide factory is working flat out.
The country needs 500 000 litres for the upcoming harvest and planting season but struggles to produce its maximum 200 000 litres after foreign exchange shortages delayed purchase of chemicals, factory chief executive Simeneh Altaye said.
FAO is helping government to procure aircraft, vehicles and sprayers, said Fatouma Seid, agency representative in Ethiopia. It is urgently trying to buy pesticides from Europe.
MONEY AND GUNS
Pest controllers in Somalia cannot enter areas controlled by the Islamist al Shabaab insurgency, said Aidid Suleiman Hashi, environment minister for the southern Jubbaland.
When locusts invaded, residents blew horns, beat drums and rang bells to scare away the insects. Al Shabaab fired anti-aircraft and machine guns at swarms, Hashi said. Jubbaland forces, not to be outdone, did so too.
Contractors are reluctant to do aerial spraying under such circumstances, FAO said.
Locusts – which have a life cycle of three months – are breeding. FAO says each generation is an average of 20 times more numerous.
When eggs hatch, as they are doing in northern Kenya, hungry young locusts are earthbound for two weeks and more vulnerable to spraying than when they grow wings.
After that, they take to the air in swarms so dense they have forced aircraft to divert. A single square kilometre swarm can eat as much food in a day as 35 000 people.
FAO said containing the plague will cost at least $138 million. Donors have pledged $52 million to date. Failure means more hunger in a region battered by conflict and climate shocks.
Since 2016, there have been droughts in Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia, then floods, Ferrand said. In South Sudan, more than half the population faces food shortages.
Rains that blessed the region with a bumper crop last year after a prolonged drought also brought a curse.
A cyclical weather pattern in the Indian Ocean, intensified by rising sea temperatures, contributed to one of the wettest October-December rainy seasons in five decades, said Nathanial Matthews of the Stockholm-based Global Resilience Partnership, a public-private partnership focused on climate change.
Locusts hatched in Yemen, largely ignored in the chaos of civil war. They migrated across the Red Sea to the Horn of Africa then spread to Sudan, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya. Now they have been spotted in Uganda, South Sudan and Tanzania.
The rains awoke dormant eggs and then stronger and more numerous cyclones scattered the insects. Eight cyclones tore across the Indian Ocean in 2019, the highest number in a single year since records began, said Matthews.