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Intense drought, torrential rains, and now a plague of locusts: the last few months in East Africa resemble a biblical scene.
The latest plague, in the form of billions of insects devouring crops, threatens the food security of a population in a region already weakened by extreme-climate events and armed conflict.
On 28 December, after an absence of more than 70 years, locust swarms returned to Kenya. Residents of the arid counties of Mandera and Wajir in the north-eastern part of the country saw the sky and land covered with countless small yellow and brown locusts arriving from Ethiopia and Somalia.
These three countries are the most affected by the latest locust invasion. Scenes of frightened inhabitants trying to chase the insects away with sticks or frighten them by banging on metal sheets have been seen everywhere.
The desert locust is considered to be one of the most dangerous of flying pests by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), as its ability to fly long distances allows it to migrate quickly.
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A swarm of one square kilometre can gather nearly 80 million locusts, each one devouring the equivalent of its own weight (2 grams) per day. In a single day, a swarm of this size eats an amount of food equivalent to that of 35,000 people. And in recent weeks, a swarm of 2,400 square kilometres, the size of Luxembourg, has been recorded in Kenya.
Threat to growth
According to FAO Director-General Qu Dongyu, tens of thousands of hectares of crops have been devastated in the region. “This is now an international situation that threatens food security in the entire sub-region,” he warned.
Among the worst affected counties in Kenya, Mandera, Marsabit, Wajir, Isiolo, Meru, and Samburu counties have lost 5 000 square kilometres, according to the authorities. Locusts prefer grasses, such as millet or maize, but also attack other crops such as rice, coffee, vegetables, and fruit.
Agriculture is a key sector in Kenya, accounting for 26% of GDP in 2019.
As the world’s largest exporter of black tea and the second-largest exporter of fruit and vegetables, the country, which is highly dependent on these exports, is now facing the threat of a depreciation of the Kenyan shilling, which could complicate the repayment of the government debt — 62% of GDP in June 2019.
It is a catastrophe, but it could have been even worse. At this time of year, most of the fields, fortunately, have already been harvested.
Locust swarms are now moving on to livestock-grazing land. The FAO predicts that the invasion, which affects more than a dozen counties in northeast Kenya, will avoid the Rift Valley, the country’s granary. But Uganda and southern Sudan are still threatened by insects.
Climate change and war in Yemen
Keith Cressman, FAO’s senior locust forecasting officer said, “In reality, locust swarms were born two years ago in the Indian Ocean. Two cyclones brought months of rains to an uninhabited desert in southern Saudi Arabia and the locusts took advantage of the wet sand, their favourite environment, to breed in three generations. In June 2019, drought drove them to Asia and Yemen, where war made it impossible to eradicate the insects, which crossed the Red Sea.”
Able to multiply their numbers by 8,000 in nine months, the locusts continued to breed along their route, arriving in resistant swarms in East Africa. They now range from Egypt to Kenya, from Yemen to the Indo-Pakistani border.
The link with global warming remains difficult to establish scientifically, but specialists are revealing a correlation between locust swarms and cyclones. In the last ten years, hurricanes have increased in the Indian Ocean, partly due to rising water temperatures.
However, climate change is contributing to the fragility of territories upstream.
Kenya has experienced a major drought followed by several floods in the last two years, which have weakened its resilience.
Economic growth has fallen from 6.4% in 2018 to 5.1% in 2019 and the Ministry of Finance states in its fiscal policy statement for the year 2020 that the recent invasion is a further threat to agricultural production.
After some delay, the government reacted on 12 January with aerial pesticide spraying. But it was not until 18 January 18 that it chose an effective chemical, fenitrothion.
Kenya’s six spray planes were not enough and the government resorted to private aviation companies, such as Farmland Aviation, which specializes in fertilizer spraying, to help stop the invasion. In its 28 January report, FAO estimates that the Horn of Africa needs $70 million (€63 million) in international assistance to deal with the plague.
The use of pesticides is a matter of debate.
Several Kenyan organisations concerned with Kenyan food safety issues point to the carcinogenic risk of products containing permethrin, carbendazim, and acephate, as well as their possible consequences on the human reproductive system. The Kenyan Agrochemicals Association, for its part, assured the country that tests on pesticides had proved them safe for humans, animals, and the environment.
The good news is that they are edible.
Some experts advocate biopesticides that only target locusts, while others see an alternative path.
Dr John Kinyuru, a food and nutrition scientist, is part of a research program on rearing insects as food, and locusts have a good place in it.
“The good news is that they are edible, you can eat them, and they are really nutritious,” he said. “The first option must be to kill them and reduce them to a level where they are not harmful. But I’m sure that if the swarm comes next year, the county governments will be more prepared to harvest them and process them into animal or human food.”
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