As the world battles COVID-19, farmers in East Africa are facing another devastating outbreak: swarms of desert locusts. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) fears that the new swarms could spark widespread crop loss and deepen already serious levels of food insecurity, especially in places reeling from conflict or violence.
“The outbreak of desert locusts cannot be forgotten in the race against COVID-19,” said John Karongo, the regional agronomist for the ICRC, based in Nairobi. “Farmers in East Africa are entering their most important planting season as new swarms are beginning to hatch. We have to act now to avert the worst.”
The March rains create a troubling domino effect: the new swarms emerging in Kenya, Somalia, and southern Ethiopia have the right conditions to remain, mature, and lay eggs, with the possibility of moving to Uganda and South Sudan. These swarms could then lay eggs in May, which would hatch in late June and July, when farmers are just starting to harvest.
Farmers in Somalia like Halima Abdikadir, who lives in Garowe town, already saw vegetation be decimated by locusts earlier this year and fears the worst is ahead if more eggs hatch. “Once swarms of locusts arrive on a farm, they don’t leave anything behind—they eat everything,” said Halima. “It damaged the guava in my farm…No one will buy damaged fruits and vegetables in the market.”
Fueled by warmer and wetter weather patterns late last year, the locust outbreak is the worst East Africa has seen in decades and came on the heels of a year marked by extreme droughts and floods.
“We have already seen a decline in food security in many areas because locusts wiped out pastureland and crops,” said Karongo. “If the locust outbreak is not stopped, we could see the biggest swarms at their hungriest time right when crops are starting to mature, all while the COVID-19 pandemic is creating economic turmoil that will undoubtedly hit poor families the hardest.”
The ICRC, together with national Red Cross and Red Crescent societies, is getting information out to communities about locusts so that swarms can be reported early and what measures should be taken when there is chemical spraying. In Somalia, the ICRC is helping farmers who received seeds last year with equipment like bio-pesticides and training to help prevent further crop loss.
“There’s a Somali proverb that says when the locust leaves an area, it leaves its eggs behind,” said Halima. “New swarms are born once the rain comes. It is good that the locusts left, but my worry right now is the eggs and the damage they will cause.”
The ICRC will continue its food, livelihoods and agriculture programs in Somalia, South Sudan, and Ethiopia, while the Kenya Red Cross stands ready to help people recover with cash grants, feed for livestock, and seeds and farming tools.
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