New generation of locusts in east Africa ‘extremely alarming’

UN warns of food threat as swarms cover 150km daily and eat same as 35,000 people

People shelter under a tree as locusts take flight in Laisamis, Kenya: swarms are likely to disrupt agricultural production and supply routes, leaving millions hungry. Photograph: Khadija Farah/New York Times

A new generation of desert locusts is spreading across east Africa, posing a significant threat to food supplies across the region.

Aid organisations and Horn of Africa agriculture ministers were expected to meet on Thursday to discuss the way forward, as well as the impact coronavirus is having on attempts to stop the locusts spreading.

Last week, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation said the situation in Eeast Africa remainsedwas "extremely alarming". Swarms are gathering and maturing in Ethiopia, Kenya and possibly Somalia, it said in an update. "This represents an unprecedented threat to food security and livelihoods because it coincides with the beginning of the long rains and the planting season."

One swarm of locusts can include as many as 150 million insects and travel as far as 150km a day. The UN says a swarm can eat as much food as 35,000 people.


Sea crossing

Locusts also lay eggs in the soil, which take two weeks to hatch. While efforts to stop the insects have been ongoing for months, the coronavirus pandemic has interfered with shipments of pesticides, protective clothing and surveillance technology. If not properly combatted, the swarms could increase 400 times by harvest season in June, the UN says.

The locusts originally crossed the Red Sea from Yemen. Earlier this year, locust swarms reached South Sudan, Djibouti, Sudan, Eritrea, Tanzania and DR Congo, and caused Somalia to declare a state of emergency. In January, a swarm of locusts forced an Ethiopian Airlines plane to divert from its course.

The UN says the new generation can form swarms 20 times the size of the previous ones.

In March, Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni said prayer had helped "neutralise" swarms of locusts in his country's northeast.

“Prayer is already working,” the 75-year-old said in a national address. “The locusts came but they ate nothing. They had already eaten a lot of things in Kenya and Somalia . . . They were just sitting in trees.”

Humanitarian crisis

"I think we gave them a lot of harassment," said Samuel Kavuma, the general who has been directing the Ugandan army's operations against the locusts. In a phone call with The Irish Times, Gen Kavuma said the swarms that came earlier this year didn't even seem to have laid eggs, as expected.

Speaking to the UN Security Council last week, David Beasley, executive director of the World Food Programme, mentioned the locusts as one of the reasons 2020 could see the world facing the worst humanitarian crisis since the second World War.

"We're already facing a perfect storm," Mr Beasley said, while also talking about changing weather patterns, the wars in Syria and Yemen, crises in South Sudan and the Sahel region, and the coronavirus pandemic. "In a worst-case scenario, we could be looking at famine in about three dozen countries and, in fact, in 10 of these countries we already have more than one million people per country who are on the verge of starvation."

Sally Hayden

Sally Hayden

Sally Hayden, a contributor to The Irish Times, reports on Africa