East Africa braces for 3rd locust swarm amid pandemic

East Africa is bracing for a third outbreak of desert locusts, with billions of the destructive insects about to hatch and threaten food supplies in a region already reeling from damaging rains and the coronavirus pandemic.

Spurred by favorable weather conditions, the migratory pests have descended on East Africa in record numbers since late 2019 and another wave is about to take to the skies despite the concerted use of pesticides.

“Tens of thousands of hectares of cropland and pasture have already been damaged across the Horn and East Africa,” the International Rescue Committee said in a report this month, noting even a small swarm could devour the same amount of food in a day as approximately 35,000 people.

In Ethiopia between January and April, locusts destroyed 1.3 million hectares of grazing land and nearly 200,000 hectares of crops, resulting in the loss of 350,000 tons of cereals, IGAD, the East Africa regional organization, said in a June report.

Somalia, which like Kenya experienced heavy rains and flooding in recent months that left scores dead, had already declared a “national emergency” against the locust scourge in February. So far East African neighbors Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi have been spared the insects, which travel in huge swarms billions of insects strong, and can migrate 150 kilometers (90 miles) in a single day.

The World Bank in May approved a $500 million (445 million euro) program to help countries vulnerable to hunger in East Africa fight the pests eating their way across the region.

In Kenya, where swarms blotted out the sky for miles in recent months, locusts have retreated to just three semi-arid counties in the country’s far north. Fortunately, too, forecasts of dire hunger did not materialize as the first swarm to arrive from Yemen in 2019 spared the end-of-year harvest, as the crops were already too mature. The insects, which can eat their body weight in food in a single day, strip the leaves but not seeds.

Namibia also detected an outbreak of red locusts in central regions of the southern African country and had sent pest control teams to the affected areas. The large grasshopper species, which is marked by bright red wings, is common to sub-Saharan Africa and breeds abundantly under drought conditions followed by rain and rapid vegetation growth. The ministry said the locusts were flying in from Botswana and Zambia. Videos shared by the ministry showed thick clouds of insects flying low over crop fields and farmland in the central Otjozondjupa region.

Namibian officials said it was too early to link the infestation to locust swarms wreaking havoc in East Africa since last year in a migration that started in the Middle East, and has been worsened by the coronavirus pandemic.

The summer harvesting season has been completed but the red locusts pose a serious threat to winter crops such as wheat and barley as well as livestock grazing areas, Namibia’s Ministry of Agriculture spokeswoman Margaret Kalo said. The latest red locust invasion follows a similar outbreak in February in the Zambezi region, named after Africa’s fourth-largest river, which overlaps parts of Namibia, Angola, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Botswana.

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