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Swarms of locusts have destroyed 170,000 acres of crops in East Africa — and local farmers are nearly helpless to stop it

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BUSINESS INSIDER 25 FEB 2020

  • Locust swarms are wiping out crops in East Africa, where millions of people already struggle to obtain healthy food.
  • A swarm can eat enough food in one day to feed 34 million people.
  • Farmers in Kenya, Ethiopia, and other countries have resorted to setting fires and making noise in attempts to ward off locusts.
  • The UN is calling for $76 million in aid to the region to combat the plague.

Locusts have huge appetites. 

One of these insects can eat its own weight in food in a single day.

With Somalia in a state of emergency and Kenya seeing the worst invasion in 70 years, the region is struggling to contain the infestation. 

And herdsmen and farmers have been feeling it the most. Somali herdsman Abdulah Hassan depends on his herd to feed his nine children.

Abdulah Hassan, herdsman: “The locusts have destroyed all of our grazing land, and I am very worried that my livestock will starve and die because these locusts are everywhere and are taking over the whole area.”

A swarm can eat enough food to feed 34 million people in just one day.

And within a year, the locusts destroyed over 170,000 acres of land in Somalia and Ethiopia — where people rely on crops for food and income. 

The swarms have been building since 2018, when two cyclones hit the Arabian Peninsula in the same year. 

The wet conditions gave locusts the perfect breeding ground, and the population increased more than 400-fold. And it got even worse after another cyclone came through the region at the end of 2019.  

Now, swarms have invaded 15 counties in Kenya and have reached Uganda, Tanzania, and Sudan. 

Communities are doing what they can to protect their food source. Many are burying locusts, setting fires, and making noise to scare them off. 

But these are not sustainable solutions.

Hassan: “But we can’t fight them because their numbers are huge and they are uncontrollable.”

An expert with the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization warns that some of these practices are actually perpetuating the problem. 

Keith Cressman, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations: “It’s just moving the problem to their neighbors and then the locusts are becoming scattered, so they’re not really a good target for control any longer.”

Local farmers have resorted to lighting fires and making noise to ward off swarms.
Local farmers have resorted to lighting fires and making noise to ward off swarms.

Reuters

Keith says the only way to sufficiently control the swarms is with pesticides. 

But resources are scarce — the Associated Press reported Kenya only has five planes to combat swarms the size of 250 football fields.

The UN is calling for $76 million in aid. So far it’s only reached $20 million, and half of that came from an emergency fund. 

And time is running out. Planting season starts around April, and the UN worries a new generation of locusts will emerge around the same time.

Many farms fear the locusts will wipe out several months' worth of harvest.
Many farms fear the locusts will wipe out several months’ worth of harvest.

Esther Kithuka, farmer: “We depend a lot on this season, and we worry that the locusts will destroy our harvest and we will end up remaining hungry throughout the rest of the year, waiting for October, when we have the next cropping season.”

If rain holds off and control operations scale up, the rising threat of these swarms could slow down. But it’s not likely. 

At the very least, officials are urging the world to step in and help.

Dominique Burgeon, Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN: “Now it’s time for the international community to understand that it’s an issue that needs to be dealt with now. Otherwise … there will be high levels of acute food insecurity. There will be million more people that will require food assistance and it will take us years to control the situation.”

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