Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia are dealing with desert locust swarms of “unprecedented size and destructive potential” that could spill over into more East African countries, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) warned.
Destroying hundreds of thousands of acres of crops, the outbreak is impacting the region’s food insecurity.
The UN agency wants a collective campaign to deal with the crisis, concerned over the risk of swarms spilling into more East African countries, “if efforts to deal with the voracious pest are not scaled up across the region”.
Further unusual climate conditions favour rapid locust reproduction.
As favourable breeding conditions continue, the increase in locust swarms could last until June. Left unchecked numbers of crop-devouring insects could grow 500 fold by then FAO said.
Kenya has not faced a locust threat of this magnitude in 70 years.
The outbreak of desert locusts, considered the most dangerous locust species, also affected parts of Somalia and Ethiopia, not been seen on this scale in 25 years.
South Sudan and Uganda are not currently affected, but are at risk, FAO added.
In a press release, FAO Director-General QU Dongyu said the agency is activating fast-track mechanisms to support governments, warning the situation is now of “international dimensions”.
“Authorities in the region have jumpstarted control activities, but in view of the scale and urgency of the threat, additional financial backing from the international donor community is needed to access tools and resources required to get the job done,” Qu said.
Swarms potentially containing hundreds of millions of individual desert locusts can move 150 km a day – devastating rural livelihoods. According to the UN agency, “given the scale of current swarms, aerial control is the only effective means to reduce numbers”.
FAO is assisting with forecasts, early warning and alerts on timing, scale and location of invasions and breeding.
Qu warned response must include efforts to restore people’s livelihoods.
“Communities in East Africa are already impacted by extended droughts, which eroded capacity to grow food and make a living. We need to help them back on their feet, once the locusts are gone,” the FAO Director General said.
Desert locust swarms have been breeding in India, Iran and Pakistan since June 2019. Some migrated to southern Iran where recent heavy rains nurtured breeding grounds that could generate swarms in the spring.
Egypt, Eritrea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Yemen are also seeing substantial breeding activity that could see locust bands expand into swarms in the coming months.