NAIROBI – Kenyan authorities are on Friday scrambling to tackle the largest swarm of locusts the East African country has experienced in seven decades as clouds of the voracious insects capable of devouring 200 tons of crops a day threaten food security in the region.
The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization described the swarms, which are pouring into Kenya from Somalia and Ethiopia, as “unprecedented in their size and destructive potential.”
FAO Director-General Qu Dongyu said: “This has become a situation of international dimensions that threatens the food security of the entire subregion.
“FAO is activating fast-track mechanisms that will allow us to move swiftly to support governments in mounting a collective campaign to deal with this crisis.”
The director called on members of the international donor community to make financial aid accessible to the affected countries.
“At this stage and on basis of conservative estimates, FAO seeks $70 million to urgently support both pest control and livelihood protection operations in the three most affected countries,” the organization said in a statement.
According to the FAO, the swarm of desert locusts has the potential to grow 500 times if left undressed.
Each insect as the capacity to eat its own body weight in vegetation every day, something that poses a considerable risk in an area of the continent where, more than 19 million people already live at risk of hunger, according to the latest figures from the Food Security and Nutrition Working Group.
It is already the largest swarm to affect Somali and Ethiopia in 25 years and the largest to hit Kenya in 70 years and there are fears that due to current wind directions in the region clouds of locusts could also arrive in neighboring South Sudan and Uganda.
Swarms comprising millions of locusts can travel 150 kilometers per day.
Speaking at a press conference in Nairobi, the director of the Desert Locust Control Organisation for Eastern Africa (DLCO-EA), Stephen Njoka said: “This species, unfortunately, does not recognize borders or need a visa or passport. The locusts we see now in Kenya do not come from Somalia, but from Yemen.”
The swarm originated in the Arabian Peninsula and appeared in northeast Ethiopia and parts of northeast Somalia six months ago. In October, it made its way through central and southern Somalia, where it continued to breed. It reached Kenya in late 2019.
Clouds of locusts have been spotted in northern Sudan, Eritrea and Djibouti.
In Ethiopia, a large swarm of the flying insects was heading in the direction of the Rift Valley, the nation’s breadbasket, the FAO said.
Environmental conditions for the locusts are ideal thanks to heavy rain brought on by two tropical cyclones over the Indian Ocean last year. The insects like to deposit their eggs in moist ground.
Millions of locusts managed to breed in the Rub’ al Khali desert, also known as the Empty Quarter on the Arabian Peninsula, during that period. They then spread to neighboring countries where unseasonably wet conditions allowed them to keep multiplying.
Guleid Artan, the director of the climate prediction and applications center in East Africa, said: “Last year was a very unusual year. In general, the rain stops in mid-December, but today we see that in January it is still raining. In general, the entire Horn of Africa has experienced its wettest rainy season of the last 40 years.”
Njoka from the DLCO-EA went on to describe the sheer size of the issue facing the region
“Many people still do not know the magnitude of this plague. We are saying that a square kilometer can contain up to 150 million locusts,” Njoka said.
To combat it — after desperate measures like tear gas and farmers dancing to scare the insects away — Kenya is finally dropping insecticide in northern and central areas of country using.
The same techniques have been employed in Somalia and Oromia Region of southern Ethiopia but efforts in Somalia were being hampered by the unstable security situation in the country.
If the plague continues into the March harvest, there could be an increased risk of famine across the Horn of Africa.