As It Happens

Massive swarms of crop-eating locusts have descended on East Africa. Here's why

Swarms of desert locusts are invading parts of East Africa, destroying hundreds and thousands of acres of crops — and the United Nations says weird weather, complicated geopolitics and war are to blame.

Weather and geopolitics to blame for Kenya's worst infestation in 70, says UN entomologist

A farmer's son raises his arms as he is surrounded by desert locusts while trying to chase them away from his crops in Katitika village, Kenya, on Jan. 24. (Ben Curtis/The Associated Press)

Transcript

Swarms of desert locusts are invading parts of East Africa, destroying hundreds of thousands of acres of crops — and the United Nations says weird weather, complicated geopolitics and war are to blame.

Kenya currently has hundreds of millions of the voracious insects, the worst outbreak the country has seen in 70 years. They've swarmed over the borders from Ethiopia and Somalia, which haven't faced an infestation on this scale in a quarter century.

"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."

The UN says about $70 million US in aid is needed to step up aerial pesticide spraying in the region, the only effective way to combat the locusts. 

'More are coming' 

Locusts breed rapidly and travel in massive yellow and rose coloured swarms that devour crops and animal feed. 

A swarm one square kilometre in size can consume enough food for 35,000 people in a single day, said Cressman, who is an entomologist.

He is currently in Kenya to respond to the crisis, and has witnessed the swarms up close. 

"Just from kind of a very human standpoint, it really makes you realize the power and the forces of nature," he said. "It's this kind of a humbling experience."

Humbling — but also horrific for those affected.

About 70,000 hectares of land in Kenya are already infested, and it's getting worse. 

"Even cows are wondering what is happening," Ndunda Makanga, who spent hours Friday trying to chase the locusts from his farm in Kenya, told The Associated Press. "Corn, sorghum, cowpeas, they have eaten everything."

Desert locusts are seen within a grazing land in Lemasulani village, Samburu County, Kenya, on Jan. 17. (Njeri Mwangi/Reuters)

The bugs breed fast, and officials are already estimating the infestation could grow 500 times before drier weather begins in June to curb their population.

"The potential for further swarms to have a significant and devastating impact on on food security, on crop production, on pastures and on people's livelihoods should not be underestimated," Cressman said.

Cyclones, sanctions and war 

Cressman says the infestation can be traced back to "a combination of very unusual weather events that have occurred consistently for about the past year and a half."

Wet, hot weather makes a perfect breeding ground for locusts. So multiple cyclones over the Indian Ocean over the last two summers, paired with heavy rain in the Arabian Peninsula, has made them plentiful.

"Whether that's, you know, attributed to climate change or something else, it can be difficult to say with certainty," Cressman said.

"But what can be said certainly is if this trend does continue in the future, we are likely to see more outbreaks of this nature in the Horn of Africa."

Swarms of desert locusts fly above trees in Katitika village. (Ben Curtis/The Associated Press)

While weather is to blame for the starting the infestation, Cressman the rapid spread can largely be attributed to geopolitics. 

Winds brought the swarms last year from the Arabian Peninsula to Iran, which he said lacked the adequate pesticides to control them because of international sanctions.

From there, they travelled to the border of Pakistan and India at a time when tensions were esclating over the contested region of Kashmir.

Eventually, he said the infestation hit Yemen, which has been steeped in war for four years and was ill-equipped to contain the creatures. 

"These are the inherent challenges of desert locust monitoring, early warning and response to outbreaks," Cressman said.

"They do get into areas that are inaccessible, insecure. They are sensitive areas, perhaps because of geopolitical relations. They can get into extremely poor countries that really don't have a strong infrastructure or ability or capacity to respond."

They are now heading toward Uganda and fragile South Sudan, where almost half the country faces hunger as it emerges from civil war.

"The livelihoods and kind of the vulnerabilities of the inhabitants of this part of Africa [are] already extremely fragile," Cressman said. "This problem is not going away very soon and could potentially become much much worse."


Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from Samantha Lui and The Associated Press. Interview with Keith Cressman produced by Samantha Lui. 

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