Locusts, Covid-19 and flooding pose 'triple threat' to East Africa

Locusts, Covid-19 and flooding pose a ‘triple threat’ to millions across East Africa, UN warns

  • A mammoth new swarm of the insects is on the most in East Africa, officials said 
  • The invasion could wipe out 100 per cent of crop production across the region 
  • Coronavirus lockdowns and flooding have stalled efforts to combat the locusts
  • Here’s how to help people impacted by Covid-19

Millions of people in East Africa face a ‘triple threat’ of locusts, coronavirus, and deadly flooding, officials have warned.      

A mammoth new swarm of the insects, numbering in the billions, is on the move in East Africa, where some countries haven’t seen such an outbreak in 70 years.

UN officials have warned a plague of the insects could be experienced by the end of the year. 

The impending invasion is estimated to be 20 times larger than the first and threatens to wipe out thousands of acres of crops before they are harvested. 

Coronavirus lockdowns have stalled efforts to combat the locusts, particularly among pesticide imports needed for aerial spraying which officials say is the only effective control. Above, a farmer’s daughter in Kenya waves her shawl to try and chase away swarms of desert locusts

In the worst case scenario 100 per cent of crop production could be experienced because of the locusts, and with the added threat of coronavirus this would devastate a region that is already home to a fifth of the world’s food insecure people, according to  a new report from the International Federation of the Red Cross has revealed.

Yemen, in the nearby Arabian Peninsula, is threatened, with UN officials warning that if locusts are not brought under control then the conflict-hit nation will remain a reservoir for further infestations in the region.

Coronavirus lockdowns have stalled efforts to combat the locusts, particularly among pesticide imports needed for aerial spraying which officials say is the only effective control. 

Restrictions because of the virus have already hampered food supply chains, causing a substantial price hike in food. 

‘We’re not in a plague, but if there are good rains in the summer and unsuccessful control operations, we could be in a plague by the end of this year,’ said Keith Cressman, senior locust forecasting officer with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.

Desert locusts like those above feeding on plants in Nasuulu Conservancy, northern Kenya, are threatening to devastate East Africa

He later told a UN briefing in New York that ‘the locust invasion is most serious now in Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia’ and is also ‘very serious in southern Iran and in parts of Pakistan.’

Starting in June, Cressman said, the locusts will move ‘from Kenya to throughout Ethiopia as well as to Sudan, perhaps West Africa’ and swarms in southern Iran and southwestern Pakistan ‘will move to India and Pakistan in the border areas.’ 

He said the latter ‘could be supplemented by other swarms coming from East Africa, or coming from northern Somalia.’

The FAO is now appealing for tens of millions of dollars of additional funds for operations in Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia that will now be extended to Yemen, Iran, to Pakistan and possibly West Africa, he said

There is risk that the locusts could make their way to West Africa in the coming months, into the sprawling and arid Sahel region just south of the Sahara Desert, he said. 

Chad, Niger and Mauritania could be affected – another burden for a region under growing threat from extremist attacks.

The FAO is preparing to increase its appeal for aid to $310 million as the livelihoods of millions of people across Ethiopia, Kenya and elsewhere are at stake, including farmers and herders.

Already about 400,000 hectares of land have been protected from the locusts, or enough crops to feed five million people, said Dominique Burgeon, FAO’s director of emergencies, ‘but it is only one part of the equation.’

The number of locusts continues to swell despite control efforts.

If work is not sustained the combined triple threat with coronavirus and flooding ‘could have a catastrophic effect,’ said FAO director-general Qu Dongyu.

Residents gather after flooding on the the River Hululu, which joins the Rver Lubiriha, near Beni, eastern Congo on May 21 2020.  Recent floods in parts of East Africa have killed nearly 300 people and displaced 500,000

In its latest assessment the FAO says the situation across East Africa remains ‘extremely alarming’ because new swarms will form from mid-June onward, coinciding with the start of the harvest season for many farmers. 

The news comes as the World Bank announced a $500 million program for countries affected by the historic desert locust swarms. 

The programme will support countries in Africa and the Middle East, and Uganda, Kenya, Djibouti and Ethiopia benefit from an initial disbursement of $160 million. 

Some of the money will go directly to farmers as cash payments with plans to help Yemen and Somalia at an ‘advanced stage,’ the bank said.

‘This food supply emergency combined with the pandemic and economic shutdown in advanced economies places some of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people at even greater risk,’ World Bank Group president David Malpass said in a statement.  

Recent floods in parts of East Africa have killed nearly 300 people and displaced 500,000, slowing locust control work and increasing the risk of the virus’ spread, according to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

Many of the displaced people are being housed in crowded temporary shelters or internal displacement camps, where physical distancing to prevent the spread of COVID-19 is nearly impossible. 

‘We are facing an unusually complex humanitarian situation,’ Simon Missiri, the group’s Africa director, said in a statement.

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