Locust swarms destroy crops in East Africa

KATITIKA, KENYA (AP) — The hum of millions of locusts on the move is broken by the screams of farmers and the clanging of pots and pans. But their noise-making does little to stop the voracious insects from feasting on their crops in this rural community.

The worst outbreak of desert locusts in Kenya in 70 years has seen hundreds of millions of the bugs swarm into the East African nation from Somalia and Ethiopia. Those two countries have not had an infestation like this in a quarter-century, destroying farmland and threatening an already vulnerable region with devastating hunger.

“Even cows are wondering what is happening,” said Ndunda Makanga, who spent hours on Friday trying to chase the locusts from his farm.

“Corn, sorghum, cowpeas, they have eaten everything.” When rains arrive in March and bring new vegetation across much of the region, the numbers of the fast-breeding locusts could grow 500 times before drier weather in June curbs their spread, the United Nations (UN) said.

“We must act immediately,” said David Phiri of the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation, as donors huddled in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, a three-hour drive away. About USD70 million is needed to step up aerial pesticide spraying, the only effective way to combat them, the UN says.

That won’t be easy, especially in Somalia, where parts of the country are in the grip of the al-Qaeda-linked al-Shabab extremist group. The rose-coloured locusts turn whole trees pink, clinging to branches like quivering ornaments before taking off in hungry, rustling clouds. Even a small swarm of the insects can consume enough food for 35,000 people in a single day, said Jens Laerke of the UN Humanitarian Office in Geneva.

Farmers are afraid to let their cattle out for grazing, and their crops of millet, sorghum and maize are vulnerable, but there is little they can do. About 70,000 hectares of land in Kenya are already infested. A single swarm can contain up to 150 million locusts per square kilometre of farmland, an area the size of almost 250 football fields, regional authorities said.

One especially large swarm in north-eastern Kenya measured 60 kilometres long by 40 kilometres wide. Kenya needs more spraying equipment to supplement the four planes now flying, Tale said. Ethiopia also has four. They also need a steady supply of pesticides, said Deputy Director of Agriculture in south-eastern Kenya’s Kitui county Francis Kitoo.

A farmer’s daughter waves her shawl in the air to chase away swarms of desert locusts from her crops, in Katitika village, Kitui county, Kenya. PHOTO: AP