Government races against time to contain threat to key food-producing regions in country still reeling from droughts and floods.
The UN has warned of a “significant and extremely dangerous” escalation in the number of desert locusts descending on Kenya, as the government strives to contain the threat before it reaches the country’s food-producing regions.
The tropical grasshoppers have been wreaking havoc on Kenya’s neighbours to the north and east, devouring tens of thousands of hectares of crops in Ethiopia and Somalia since last June.
Swarms crossed over into north-east Kenya on 28 December. In a statement released on Monday, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) predicted that their “potential spread” could include the breadbasket counties of central Kenya.
If it does, the insects could destroy crucial parts of the country’s food supply, at a time when food insecurity is already on the rise owing to droughts and floods last year.
Each square kilometre of locusts in a swarm can eat as much in a day as 35,000 people, according to the FAO. One locust swarm seen in Kenya measured 2,400 sq km.
“There is an unprecedented threat to food security and livelihoods” across the Horn of Africa, the FAO said.
David Mwangi, head of plant protection services at Kenya’s Ministry of Agriculture, said the locusts had primarily destroyed grazing land in counties in the north-east so far. Pesticides have been sprayed by planes in several counties to exterminate the insects, and the expectation is that the swarms will be contained there.
“So far, they have not gotten to the cropland,” Mwangi said. “We are working hard to prevent them from spreading to food production areas.”
Kenya’s newly appointed agriculture minister, Peter Munya, announced on Wednesday that the government has allocated nearly $300,000 (£229,000) to fight the threat. As the swarms in Kenya haven’t yet reached maturity, Mwangi is optimistic about cutting off the worst threat – mature locusts laying eggs and giving rise to even larger swarms in a few weeks when they hatch.
Locust plagues occur intermittently in the Horn of Africa, but this invasion is the worst in 25 years, according to the FAO. Originating at the India-Pakistan border, the insects migrated into Somalia and Ethiopia and destroyed nearly 71,000 hectares of farmland in the two countries.
“The locusts were so many,” said Abshir Mohamed Abdi, who works for the NGO Action Against Hunger and saw the swarms in Somalia. “When they landed on one crop, it would fall down.”
He said the swarms were another blow to farmers already reeling from natural disasters last year.
“Those farmers that were not affected by the floods are affected by the locusts,” he said. “They have created another disaster on top of the current one.”
And the threat is not over yet. Swarms have laid eggs in northern Somalia that are now hatching and may migrate again, in even larger numbers, according to Abdurahman Hussein Ismail, a migratory pests expert and director of the Somaliland environmental and agricultural protection institute.
“Locusts are highly mobile and destructive,” he said, adding that they can travel up to 150 km per day. “The situation is very, very serious.”