World

UN warns of potential 'catastrophe' for Africa if locust outbreak not contained

Uganda is scrambling to respond to the biggest locust outbreak that parts of East Africa have seen in decades, while the United Nations is warning the already vulnerable region "simply cannot afford another major shock" to its food supplies.

Tens of millions of dollars needed to bring the problem under control, UN says

A swarm of locusts on the canopies of shrubs near Archers Post in Samburu county, Kenya, on Jan. 22. (Tony Karumba/AFP via Getty Images)

Uganda is scrambling to respond to the biggest locust outbreak that parts of East Africa have seen in decades, while the United Nations is warning the already vulnerable region "simply cannot afford another major shock" to its food supplies.

An emergency government meeting held hours after the locusts were spotted inside Uganda on Sunday decided to deploy military forces to help with ground-based pesticide spraying, while two planes for aerial spraying will arrive as soon as possible, officials said in a statement. Aerial spraying is considered the only effective control.

The swarms of billions of locusts have been destroying crops in Kenya, which hasn't seen such an outbreak in 70 years, as well as Somalia and Ethiopia, which haven't seen this in a quarter-century. The insects have exploited favourable wet conditions after unusually heavy rains.

UN officials warn that immediate action is needed before more rainfall in the weeks ahead brings fresh vegetation to feed new generations of locusts. If left unchecked, their numbers could grow up to 500 times before drier weather arrives, they say.

"There is the risk of a catastrophe," UN humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock told a briefing in New York on Monday, warning that a region where 12 million people already face severe food insecurity can't afford another jolt.

An official from the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization demonstrates software used to record and track the location and movements of locusts using GPS in the desert near Garowe, in the semi-autonomous Puntland region of Somalia. (Ben Curtis/The Associated Press)

Without enough aerial spraying to stop the swarms, the locust outbreak could turn into a plague, "and when you have a plague, it takes years to control," Dominique Burgeon, emergency and resilience director with the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, told The Associated Press last week.

The outbreak also is moving toward South Sudan, where another several million people face hunger as the country struggles to emerge from civil war.

Need a big scale-up

The UN has asked for $76 million US in immediate aid. So far just under $20 million is in hand, officials said. The United States said Monday it has released $800,000 and the European Union has released 1 million euros.

"The response today is not gonna work, unless there's a big scale-up," Lowcock said.

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

We talk to Abdinoor Ole Hussein in Kenya. He is one of the people fighting swarms of locusts wreaking devastation across whole countries in Africa. Rachel Cleetus, policy director for the climate and energy program at the Union for Concerned Scientists, says more help is needed for the next rainy season. 14:06

The locusts are eating the vegetation that supports vibrant herder communities in the region. Kenya's UN ambassador, Lazarus Amayo, warned of the "inherent risk of communal conflict over pastures."

The outbreak is so severe it might even disrupt the planting of crops in the coming weeks, he said.

Even before the locust invasion, some 11 million people in Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya were experiencing food insecurity, the UN's Food and Agricultural Organization said.