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Next East Africa locust swarms airborne in 3 to 4 weeks, UN warns

Baby desert locusts in Somalia will become East Africa's next plague wave, UN agronomy experts have warned. Climate change-driven rain has triggered "unprecedented" breeding, says UN chief Antonio Guterres.

The UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) warned Sunday that nymph (baby) desert locusts maturing in Somalia's rebel-held backcountry, where aerial spraying is next to unrealizable, will develop wings in the "next three or four weeks" and threaten millions of people already short of food.

Once in flight and hungry, the swarm could be the "most devastating plague of locusts in any of our living memories if we don't reduce the problem faster than we are doing at the moment," said UN humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock.

Read more: Why are locusts so destructive?

The locusts were now "very hungry teenagers," but once mature, their progeny would hatch, generating "about a 20-fold increase" in numbers, warned Keith Cressman, FAO locust forecasting officer.

"Mother Nature" alone would not solve the crisis, said Dominique Burgeon, resilience director of the FAO, which has urged international donors to give $76 million (€69.4 million) immediately.

Swarms, which left damage across parts of Ethiopia and Kenya in December, could also put Uganda, South Sudan, Eritrea and Djibouti at risk, making it the worst such situation in 25 years, the FAO said.

East Africa already has 19 million people facing acute food insecurity, according to the regional inter-agency Food Security and Nutrition Working Group (FSNWG).

Read more: Pakistan declares national emergency over locust swarms 

'Huge' consumption of foodstuffs and fodder

Somalia last week declared a locust emergency, with its agriculture minister, Said Hussein Iid, warning that "food sources for people and their livestock are at risk."

Desert locusts, normally solitary but triggered to swarm by certain conditions, could consume "huge amounts of crops and forage" when present in large numbers, said Iid.

Experts say aerial pesticide spraying is the only effective control, but that the current hotspot for maturing locusts is in an inaccessible swathe of Somalia held by or under threat by the al-Qaida-linked al-Shabab extremist group.

"This is where it begins," FAO spokesman Alberto Trillo Barca said at a police-guarded press briefing in northern Somalia attended by The Associated Press news agency.

"In the next three or four weeks, these nymphs, as we call them, will develop wings," Barca said on Thursday.

Read moreLocust swarms plague East Africa as wildfires burn Australia  

Pest-control officials spraying bushes in Somalia

These officials in Puntland, Somalia, are spraying by hand, but only aerial spraying is really effective, say experts

'Unprecedented locust crisis'

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, speaking in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, as an African Union (AU) summit kicked off, said Saturday: "There is a link between climate change and the unprecedented locust crisis plaguing Ethiopia and East Africa."

"Warmer seas mean more cyclones generating the perfect breeding ground for locusts. This is getting worse by the day," said Guterres.

Climate experts point to a rain-bearing cyclone that reached Somalian waters in December. Its winds had carried locusts from the Arabian Peninsula. Last week, the FAO said swarms had also been sighted in Oman and Yemen.

The locust density in East Africa was so high that even normal drier weather would still fail to inhibit another breeding generation, said Burgeon.

 An Ethioian girl fending off locusts

A locust swarm in Jijiga in Ethiopia in January decimated crops

Replacement crop unrealistic

A farmer in Kenya's eastern Kitui County, Esther Kithuka, told the Reuters news agency last Monday that she was worried about crop destruction. Another growing season due to start in April would be too short for any meaningful production.

Since last century, six desert locust plagues or what experts called region-wide "upsurges" have occurred. One of the worst occurred in 2003-2005 in North and West Africa.

ipj/jlw (AP, AFP, dpa, Reuters)

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