Unprecedented locust plague in Kenya and Horn of Africa threatening food security

Posted by
PHOTO A Samburu boy uses a wooden stick to swat a swarm of desert locusts filling the air, as he herds his camel in Kenya.

The most serious outbreak of locusts in 25 years is spreading across East Africa and posing an unprecedented threat to food security in some of the world’s most vulnerable countries, authorities say. 

Key points:

  • An increase in locust swarm activity has been reported in Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia, Sudan, Ejibouti, and Eritrea
  • The infestations are a major threat to food security across the entire Horn of Africa, which is already reeling from floods and droughts
  • Hundreds of thousands of hectares of crops are estimated to have been destroyed

The “extremely dangerous increase” in locust swarm activity has been reported in Kenya, with one swarm in the country’s northeast measuring 60 kilometres long by 40 kilometres wide.

In a statement, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) said a typical desert locust swarm could contain up to 150 million locusts per square kilometre. 

“Swarms migrate with the wind and can cover 100 to 150 kilometres in a day,” the IGAD said. 

Two men in the middle of a swarm of locusts

“An average swarm can destroy as much food crops in a day as is sufficient to feed 2,500 people.”

Thousands of hectares of crops destroyed

The outbreak of desert locusts, considered the most dangerous locust species, has also affected parts of Somalia, Ethiopia, Sudan, Djibouti and Eritrea, and IGAD warned that parts of South Sudan and Uganda could be next.

Breeding is continuing on both sides of the Red Sea, in Sudan and Eritrea and in Saudi Arabia and Yemen.

A man holding a locust in his fingers

The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (UNFAO) warned the outbreak could worsen the region’s poor food security situation, with hundreds of thousands of hectares of crops destroyed.

“These infestations represent a major threat to food security in Kenya and across the entire Horn of Africa, which is already reeling from floods and droughts,” said Bukar Tijani, UNFAO’s Assistant Director General, calling the swarms “vast and unprecedented”.

Already millions of people cope with the constant risk of drought or flooding, as well as deadly unrest in Ethiopia, extremist attacks in Somalia and lingering fighting in South Sudan as it emerges from civil war.

The further increase in locust swarms could last until June as favourable breeding conditions continue, IGAD said, helped along by unusually heavy flooding in parts of the region in recent weeks.

Desert locusts cover the ground

Major locust outbreaks can be devastating: a major one between 2003 and 2005 cost more than $US500 million ($727 million) to control across 20 countries in northern Africa, the UNFAO has said, with more than $US2.5 billion ($3.6 billion) in harvest losses.

To help prevent and control outbreaks, authorities analyse satellite images, stockpile pesticides and conduct aerial spraying. 

Police shoot bullets and teargas at bugs

In Ethiopia, officials said they had deployed four small planes to help fight the invasion.

Two men hold desert locusts in a field

Kenyan media showed police shooting bullets and teargas at an oncoming swarm as residents banged on buckets and hooted car horns to try to frighten the insects.

A farmers’ association in Kenya’s northern Laikipia area said it was planning aerial spraying of pesticides. 

“These things are in their millions and will eat all the vegetation here,” said Peter Learpanai, a herdsman in the northern Samburu region who was flapping his jacket at a cloud of the insects that had descended on his grazing land.

“Our animals will not have anything to feed on.

“The government needs to get serious about fighting them.”