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Eastern Africa locust swarms could affect several more countries: UN agency

Swarms of desert locusts could ravage more countries in eastern Africa and threaten the livelihood of many more people, the United Nations' Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) said on Monday.

Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia have been most afflicted from massive swarms so far

A farmer looks back as she walks through swarms of desert locusts feeding on her crops, in Katitika village, Kitui County, Kenya on Jan. 24. Desert locusts have swarmed into Kenya by the hundreds of millions from Somalia and Ethiopia, countries that haven't seen such numbers in a quarter-century, destroying farmland and threatening an already vulnerable region. (Ben Curtis/The Associated Press)

Swarms of desert locusts could ravage more countries in eastern Africa and threaten the livelihood of many more people, the United Nations' Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) said on Monday.

The swarms, first sighted in December, have already destroyed tens of thousands of hectares of farmland in Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia, threatening food supplies in the worst locust invasion in 70 years.

"There are also other countries at risk, especially South Sudan, Uganda, Eritrea," said Bukar Tijani, assistant director-general of the FAO's agriculture and consumer protection department.

FAO said at least one locust swarm had already been seen in Eritrea, and several had also been sighted in Oman and Yemen.

The United Nations has said $76 million US is needed immediately to prevent the outbreak from spreading cross East Africa.

Desert locusts are shown in Lemasulani village, Samburu County, Kenya on Jan. 17. They can move in swarms the size of a small city and ravage farms of vegetation within hours. (Njeri Mwangi/Reuters)

The finger-length locusts swept into the region after unusually heavy rains in recent months, decimating crops in some areas and threatening millions of vulnerable people with a hunger crisis.

Within hours, the locusts can strip a pasture of much of its vegetation.

Daunting task for spray planes

Just five planes are being used in Kenya to spray pesticides — the only effective control, according to experts — as authorities there try to stop the locusts from spreading to neighbouring Uganda and South Sudan.  

Even before the locust invasion, some 11 million people in Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya were experiencing food insecurity, and the swarms will worsen the situation, the FAO said.

"Therefore, we need to make all possible efforts to avoid such a deterioration," said Dominique Burgeon, director of the FAO emergencies and rehabilitation division, during a visit to Samburu and Kitui counties, two of 15 affected regions in Kenya.

"We know that these locusts ... can create massive devastation not only in terms of crops, but also in terms of pasture and therefore affecting the livelihoods of the pastoralist communities," she said. "The only solution that works is aerial spraying."

"There are nearly 12 million people that are severely food insecure in the three countries that are affected by locusts now," Keith Cressman, the senior locust forecasting officer with UN Food and Agriculture Organization, told As It Happens host Carol Off. "So this is really the last thing that they need." 6:33

Conflict and chaos in much of Somalia make spraying pesticide by airplane impossible, the agency said in December.

Somalia's agriculture and irrigation ministry said it had declared the locust invasion a national emergency.

Esther Kithuka, a farmer in Mwingi in eastern Kenya's Kitui County, said she was worried the locusts would destroy their crops, and that another growing season due to start in April would be too short for any meaningful production.

"We depend a lot on this season and we worry that the locusts will destroy our harvest and we will end up remaining hungry through the rest of the year waiting for October for the next cropping season," she said.

With files from The Associated Press

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