Locust menace: Why the storm is not yet over

08th Feb, 2020
Locust menace: Why the storm is not yet over
Men who work for a county disaster team wrestle with locusts, near the village of Sissia, Samburu. [AP Photo/Patrick Ngugi]

The locust invasion has reached what experts call full blown crisis hitting almost half of the counties and destroying acres of crop and fodder.

Despite the unprecedented nature of the situation, the state maintains that Kenya is on top of things.

Though the state insists that the desert problem is under control, a report by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) paints a different picture.

FAO, in a report last week, said the locusts had started new breeding, which would cause more infestations. 

Government spokesman Cyrus Oguna said the state had laid down mechanisms and procedures to contain the infestation.

“Since the destructive insects struck in December last year, the government, through Desert Locust Control Organisation, has increased the fleet of aircraft being used in fighting the locusts from two to a total of nine currently,” Oguna said earlier this week.

Some 145 officers have undergone training and deployment to monitor and support the control teams in various counties, Oguna added.

But the UN warns that if the infestations are not contained, they could culminate in plagues that could take several years to control and gobble up hundreds of millions of shillings.

FAO estimates that Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia need $70 million (Sh7 billion) to tackle the plague.

So is the storm over as the state is portraying?

Dr Paul Kinoti, a horticulturalist and agronomist in the Department of Horticulture and Food Security at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT) says more needs to be done to control the situation.

Behaviour patterns

“Locusts usually live shy, solitary lives. But every now and again they join together in gregarious bands that actively seek out each other until they form hungry swarms. These can contain a billion or more individuals that each day can devour their own body weight, with devastating consequences for crops and vegetation,” Dr Kinoti says.

Dr Kinoti also offers an in-depth explanation on the origin of the current invasion and why it is happening now.

“According to FAO the current outbreak occurred along the Red Sea coast around May 2018. The situation was worsened by two cyclones that caused heavy rains in the Empty Quarter on the Arabian Peninsula in May and October of that year. The rains caused massive breeding over three cycles that went unnoticed. Thereafter, numerous swarms began to move south in January to March last year. Other two cycles of breeding followed.”

The swarms then drifted with the winds to Iran, and ended up on the border between Pakistan and India in June. They then migrated to Yemen where political instability and war prevented surveillance and control. Subsequently they crossed the Gulf of Aden into Ethiopia and Somalia. Once they reached Somalia, it seemed inevitable that they would reach Kenya says the don.

Mandera and Wajir were the first affected areas as the locust swarms invaded northern Kenya.

Within weeks, the locust infestation has hit 15 counties including Mandera, Wajir, Marsabit, Garissa, Isiolo, Meru, Samburu, Kirinyaga, Laikipia, Embu, Machakos and Baringo, ravaging food crops, pasture and other vegetation.

Apart from Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia, the three most affected countries in the region, the locust outbreak has also inflicted Djibouti, Eritrea and Sudan.

Last Sunday, Somalia’s Ministry of Agriculture declared a national emergency, terming them a threat to the country’s food security.

Desert locusts, which are the variety that have invaded the region, are considered the most dangerous species of locusts. The locust species devours weight equal to its body weight daily, allowing it to cause extensive damage.

Quoting the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), Dr Kinoti says typical desert locust swarm can contain up to 150 million locusts per square kilometre, with the swarms covering up to 150 kilometres a day. In a day, Dr Kinoti says, an average swarm destroys food capable of feeding 2,500 people.

According to FAO, the desert locusts eat and reproduce rapidly, mating even as they fly and their numbers increasing up to 20 times in three months.

The UN body adds that reproduction is especially fast with good rain fall and favourable ecological conditions.

FAO adds that substantial breeding of the insects is occurring in Egypt and Eritrea, which could lead to a high increase in the swarms across the region over the next few months.

“Recent weather in East Africa has created conditions that favour rapid locust reproduction. Left unchecked, the number of crop-devouring insects could grow 500 times by June,” FAO warns.

Sadly, locust invasions can cause extensive losses, according to FAO.

The United Nations body estimates that an outbreak of the insects between 2003 and 2005 in northern Africa was mitigated using $500 million, causing farmers whooping losses of $2.5 billion.

FAO has termed the invasion as the worst to hit Ethiopia and Somalia in 25 years, while adding that Kenya has not witnessed an outbreak of this magnitude in 70 years.

Already, the insects have caused immense damage in Turkana, wrecking more than 10,000 acres of vegetation and food crops and exposing the residents and livestock to hunger. The impact of the locust infestation in Somalia and Ethiopia has been extremely devastating as well.

In Somalia alone, the locusts have destroyed over 170,000 acres of vegetation, informing the declaration of a state of emergency.

“This has become a situation of international dimensions that threatens the food security of the entire sub-region,” FAO Director-General QU Dongyu said earlier this week.

“Given the scale of the current swarms, aerial control is the only effective means to reduce the locust numbers. Aerial operations need to be up scaled substantially and very quickly in Ethiopia and Kenya,” notes FAO.

In January, the national Treasury released Sh30 million to fight the infestation, even as the institution warned the insects could have a devastating impact on Kenya’s food security and economy.

There is hope

Despite these measures, the infestation has persisted in some parts due to the use of ineffective pesticides and continued breeding of the insects.

Though things look grim for now, there is hope, as Dr Kinoti notes that the locusts are highly likely to leave Kenya soon due to a shift in wind patterns.

“According to FAO, there are high expectations that the pests will head northwest into Baringo, Turkana and Marsabit counties before entering Uganda while some swarms of locust will likely fly to Ethiopia and this will happen very soon thereby reducing the damaging effect of the pest,” says the JKUAT expert.  

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