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East Africa battles worst swarms of locusts in decades

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Via Financial Times

The UN is appealing for urgent international action as the worst swarms of desert locusts in decades threaten to devastate farming regions across east Africa.

The body’s Food and Agriculture Organization is calling for emergency funding of $70m to combat the locusts through aerial spraying as swarms — some of them billions strong and one the size of Moscow — make their way from Ethiopia and Somalia across Kenya.

Uganda and South Sudan — the latter especially vulnerable to hunger after years of civil war — are also at risk.

The Kenyan invasion is already the worst in 70 years, while in Ethiopia and Somalia it is the worst for 25 years. The FAO warned as early as November that Ethiopia was in danger, and says that if unchecked, the number of locusts across the region could multiply 500 times by June.

“This has become a situation of international dimensions that threatens the food security of the entire subregion,” said Qu Dongyu, director-general of the FAO. “Authorities in the region have already jump-started control activities, but in view of the scale and urgency of the threat, additional financial backing from the international donor community is needed so they can access the tools and resources required.”

Edward Musya, 53, a maize farmer in Kitui, about 180km east of Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, said his only reference point for such a devastating invasion was the Bible. “At first I thought it was smoke from afar, only to realise that locusts had invaded my farm,” he said. 

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Muimi Musila, who farms mung beans in nearby Mwingi South, said locusts had descended on his 25-hectare plot and devoured about three-quarters of his crop. “It is a big blow because I depend on farming to pay [for] school fees and food for my four children,” he said. Mr Musila, who farms on a commercial scale, said the losses also threatened the regional food supply.

Aggrey Bagiire, the Ugandan state minister for agriculture, animal industry and fisheries, said the large number of locusts was the result of unusually heavy rains last year in normally semi-arid locust breeding grounds.

Locusts often live as individuals but, under certain conditions form massive migratory swarms, changing their feeding habits and even colour. The locusts currently swarming across east Africa are pink.

Map showing locust swarms in east Africa

Mr Bagiire said the situation was not under control in Kenya, largely because of security concerns in the north-east of the country on the border with Somalia, where the locusts have concentrated. 

“Since the current control capacity is limited, some of the swarms could move further west . . . with likely potential and risk that some swarms could spill over into the north-eastern region of Uganda,” he said in a statement.

The FAO said that locusts ate their own body-weight in food each day. A swarm the size of Paris could in a single day devour half the amount of food eaten by the entire French population, it said.

“The speed of the pest’s spread and the size of the infestations are so far beyond the norm that they have stretched the capacities of local and national authorities to the limit,” it said. 

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In Kitui, Mr Musya, the maize farmer, said that, in the end, he had driven the locusts from his fields, but had not been able to eradicate the threat. “We opted to beat drums tirelessly with the hopes that we could scare them away,” he said. “It worked and they flew to our neighbour’s farm.”

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