'Devastating plague of locusts' poses threat to east Africa, UN warns

"We cannot eradicate the locusts, but we can contain them and prevent a food crisis from breaking out," The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs wrote in a report.

A Somali farmer walks within desert locusts in a grazing land on the outskirt of Dusamareb in Galmudug region, Somalia December 22, 2019 (photo credit: REUTERS/FEISAL OMAR)
A Somali farmer walks within desert locusts in a grazing land on the outskirt of Dusamareb in Galmudug region, Somalia December 22, 2019
(photo credit: REUTERS/FEISAL OMAR)
The swarm of locusts coming to East Africa in the coming weeks could "be the most devastating plague of locusts in any of our living memories if we don't reduce the problem faster than we're doing at the moment,” UN humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock told NBC News.
The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) released a report saying that desert locusts, which have already began swarming Kenya, pose a threat to the entire East African region's food security and livelihoods. In a single day, a one square kilometer (.38 square miles) swarm can consume enough food to feed 35,000 people and can travel 150km (57.9 miles), according to UNOCHA.
UNOCHA also expressed concern that the upcoming rainy season, which enables desert locust reproduction is also a "key season for pastoralists and farmers."
“We must act now,” Lowcock told UNOCHA. 'If left unchecked, this outbreak has the potential to spill over into more countries in East Africa with horrendous consequences. A swift and determined response to contain it is essential."
Kenya is experiencing "the worst upsurge" in locust swarms in 70 years, according to UNOCHA. Additionally, the upsurges in Ethiopia and Somalia are the worst the countries have seen in 25 years.
The swarms have already reached Djibouti and Eritrea, according to the UNOCHA, which added that Uganda and South Sudan, which have not had locust swarms in almost 60 years, are likely to see locusts.
The locusts are a problem that “we cannot believe in Mother Nature to solve,” Alberto Trillo Barca, a spokesman for the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (UNFOA), told NBC News.
The concern is that this massive swarm, if not controlled properly can turn into a plague, “and when you have a plague, it takes years to control,” Barca told NBC News.
Climate scientists say global warming may be behind the current infestations, which have also hit parts of Iran, India and Pakistan.
Warmer seas have resulted in a rise in the frequency of cyclones in the Indian Ocean. This caused heavy downpours along the Arabian peninsula, creating ideal conditions for locust breeding in the deserts of Oman, Yemen and Saudi Arabia.
Researchers are increasingly looking to technology to help provide early warning signs and control locust outbreaks amid fears climate change could bring more cyclones.
Officials in Kenya say drones could play an important role given the limited number of aircraft.
"Every county wants an aircraft, but we have only have five at the moment, and they can only be in one location at one time," David Mwangi, head of plant protection at Kenya's ministry of agriculture, told Reuters.
"We have not used drones before, but I think it's worth testing them as they could help."
Existing drone models are restricted in terms of the volumes they can carry and the distances they can cover due to their size and limited battery life, say entomologists and plant protection researchers.
Another challenge for drone use in such emergencies is the lack of regulation. Many east African countries are still in the early stages of drafting laws, prohibiting usage unless in exceptional circumstances and with strict approvals.
That makes it harder to deploy larger drones, which have petrol-powered engines capable of carrying tanks of up to 1,500 litres and travelling distances of up to 500 km, and often require special approval.
Drones can also be used in the aftermath of an infestation.
"The other use case for drones is in post disaster mapping," said Kush Gadhia from Astral Aerial Solutions, a Kenyan firm that seeks to use drones to address development challenges.
"Governments need to know the extent of the damage afterwards. Combining larger satellite maps with smaller drone maps - which provide higher resolution images - will give more accurate assessments on the extent crop loss and health," Gadhia told Reuters.
The UNFOA launched an emergency appeal in response to the swarm. The organization is looking to put $76 million toward helping "governments rapidly scale up aerial spraying and other control measures and to protect peoples’ livelihoods in affected areas," UNOCHA reported. The organization has managed to raise $18 million of its $76 million goal.
According to UNOCHA, "desert locusts are considered the most destructive migratory pests in the world." The organization noted that Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia all have reported crop damage, but that the reports were not "reliably ascertained." UNOCHA says that "rapid assessments" are already taking place and will provide a more accurate image of the damage.
"We cannot eradicate the locusts, but we can contain them and prevent a food crisis from breaking out," UNOCHA wrote.


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