Locust swarms in Africa ‘unprecedented in modern times’

A man runs through a desert locust swarm in the bush near Enziu, Kitui County, some 200km east of the capital Nairobi, Kenya. EPA-EFE/DAI KUROKAWA

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Along with climate shocks, conflict and acute food insecurity, the East Africa region now faces a hunger threat from desert locusts, top UN relief officials warned on Tuesday, saying action now, will avert a major food crisis later.

The locust upsurge is “a graphic and shocking reminder” of the region’s vulnerability, said a joint statement from Qu Dongyu, Director-General of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO); Mark Lowcock, UN Emergency Relief Coordinator; and David Beasley, Executive Director of the World Food Programme (WFP).

“This is a scourge of biblical proportions”, the statement read. “Yet as ancient as this scourge is, its scale today is unprecedented in modern times”.

Joint Statement Locusts in East Africa 25 Feb 2020

A small group of desert locusts has entered Congo, marking the first time the voracious insects have been seen in the Central African country since 1944, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Agency said Tuesday as U.N. agencies warned of a “major hunger threat” in East Africa from the flying pests.

Kenya, Somalia and Uganda have been battling the swarms in the worst locust outbreak that parts of East Africa have seen in 70 years. The U.N. said swarms have also been sighted in Djibouti, Eritrea and Tanzania and recently reached South Sudan, a country where roughly half the population already faces hunger after years of civil war.

Although the UN agriculture agency sounded the alarm in January, calling for financial assistance to control the outbreak, resources have been too slow in coming.

Since FAO launched its first appeal to help what was at the time three affected countries, the locust swarms have moved rapidly across vast distances and as of 12 February, have been sighted in Djibouti, Eritrea, South Sudan, Uganda and Tanzania.

Locust swarm threatens Kenya's food security
A desert locust is seen after an invasion in Shaba National Reserve in Isiolo, northern Kenya. EPA-EFE/Daniel Irungu

Each day, more countries are affected.

Last week, a swarm crossed into South Sudan, one of Africa’s most food-insecure and fragile countries. And just this week, one swarm reached the eastern boundaries of the Democratic Republic of the Congo – a country that has not seen a locust incursion since 1944.

The potential impact of locusts on a country that is still grappling with complex conflict, displacement, Ebola and measles outbreaks and food insecurity would be devastating

As the locusts continue their invasion throughout eastern Africa, and more details emerge on the scale of need in affected areas, the cost of action has shot up to $138 million to support Governments in controlling the ravaging pests, especially over the next four months.

The money would fund activities to combat the locusts before new swarms emerge, provide help for people whose crops or pastures are already affected and protect families and their livelihoods.

WFP has estimated the cost of responding to the impact of locusts on food security alone to be at least 15 times higher than the cost of preventing the spread now.

It is time for the international community to act more decisively.

“The math is clear, as is our moral obligation”, concluded the statement. “Pay a little now or pay a lot more later”.

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