Uganda scrambled to respond to the biggest locust outbreak parts of East Africa have seen in decades while the UN warned on Monday that “we simply cannot afford another major shock” to an already vulnerable region.
After an emergency government meeting hours after the locusts were spotted in Uganda on Sunday, military forces were sent to help with ground-based pesticide spraying, while two planes for aerial spraying will arrive as soon as possible, a statement said. Aerial spraying is considered the only effective form of control.
The swarms of billions of locusts have been destroying crops in Kenya, which hasn’t had such an outbreak in 70 years, as well as Somalia and Ethiopia, which last had comparable swarms a quarter of a century ago.
The insects have exploited favourable wet conditions after unusually heavy rains, and experts say climate change is expected to bring more of the same.
Keith Cressman, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation’s senior locust forecasting officer, said Kenya has received “waves and waves of swarms” since the beginning of the year from the Horn of Africa,.
“Over the weekend they moved on the side of Mount Kilimanjaro across the border into Tanzania,” he said.
“Also over the weekend they moved into northeastern Uganda,” he told a news conference at UN headquarters in New York. “We’re expecting, any day, they will move across the border into the southeast corner of South Sudan.”
Several million people in South Sudan face hunger as the country struggles to emerge from civil war.
A medium-size swarm of locusts can eat the same amount of food as the entire population of Kenya, Mr Cressman said, and “that swarm in one day can eat the same amount of food as everybody here in the tri-state area, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York. So not taking action in time – you can see the consequences.”
UN officials warn immediate action is needed before more rainfall in the weeks ahead brings fresh vegetation to feed new generations of locusts. If left unchecked, their numbers could multiply 500 times before drier weather arrives, they say.
“There is the risk of a catastrophe,” UN humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock told a briefing in New York on Monday.
He said 13 million people already face severe food insecurity – 10 million in places affected by locusts – and the region can’t afford another jolt.
Dominique Burgeon, the FAO’s emergency and resilience director, warned colleagues at the UN briefing that another 20 million people in the region are at risk of food insecurity.
Without enough aerial spraying to stop the swarms, the locust outbreak could turn into a plague, “and when you have a plague, it takes years to control,” Mr Burgeon told The Associated Press last week.
The UN has asked for $76 million in immediate aid. So far, slightly under $20m (Dh73.4m) is in hand, including $10m released by Lowcock from the UN emergency relief fund and $3.8m from FAO, officials said.
The United States said on Monday it had released $800,000 and the European Union has released €1m (Dh4m).
“The response today is not gonna work, unless there’s a big scale-up,” Mr Lowcock said.
The locusts are eating the vegetation that supports vibrant herder communities in the region, and Kenyan Ambassador Lazarus Amayo warned the UN of the “inherent risk of communal conflict over pastures”.
Locusts “do wanton damage,” he said, and the outbreak was so severe it might even disrupt crop planting in the weeks to come.