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Kenya's Locust Outbreak May Be Nearing End as Spring Rains Are Delayed

By Ron Brackett

5 days ago

At a Glance

  • East Africa is seeing its worst desert locust crisis in 25 years.
  • The swarms have devastated crops and pastures.
  • The losses have exacerbated conditions for more than 42 million people facing food insecurity.
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Stephen Mudoga, 12, the son of a farmer, chases away a swarm of locusts on his farm as he returns home from school at Elburgon, in Nakuru county, Kenya, on March 17, 2021. It's the beginning of the planting season in Kenya, but delayed rains have brought a small amount of optimism in the fight against the locusts, which pose an unprecedented risk to agriculture-based livelihoods and food security in the already fragile Horn of Africa region. (AP Photo/Brian Inganga)
Stephen Mudoga, 12, the son of a farmer, chases away a swarm of locusts on his farm as he returns home from school at Elburgon, in Nakuru county, Kenya, on March 17, 2021.
(AP Photo/Brian Inganga)

Lack of rain in East Africa is usually cause for major concern, but this year, delayed spring rains could be beneficial.

The Horn of Africa has been experiencing its worst desert locust crisis in more than 25 years. In Kenya, the swarms of ravenous insects are the worst they've been in 70 years.

A swarm can cover anywhere from a few acres to well over 100 square miles. Each square mile can contain 120 million to 240 million adult locusts, according to the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization. A swarm of 40 million desert locusts can eat the same amount of food in one day as about 35,000 people.

They eat almost any plant, including crops of grains, vegetables, sugar cane and fruit trees and the grass in pastures.

(MORE: Dinosaur-Killer Asteroid Gave Rise to Today's Tropical Rainforests)

The current locust upsurge began in 2018 when tropical cyclones Luban and Mekunu drenched the Arabian Peninsula, leaving behind perfect wet conditions for the hatching of desert locusts, according to the Intergovernmental Authority on Development's Climate Prediction and Applications Center. Massive swarms spread across Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Iran.

Winds carried swarms across the Red Sea, and they landed on the Horn of Africa in mid-2019. That year, cyclones again left perfect conditions for locusts to spread. Within the first few months of 2020, huge swarms had spread across Kenya, Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan and Eritrea. A second wave hit Kenya this past November.

The Food and Agriculture Organization said the locusts have worsened conditions for more than 42 million people already facing acute food insecurity.

"I have lost everything. What do you expect me to eat?" Isabella Karoki, a farmer in central Kenya, told Deutsche Welle.

Dairy farmer Thomas Mwerore said, "The locusts have eaten all the pasture that was there for our livestock. We are suffering. Even food that we humans eat isn't there, what can we do?"

But now there is a bit of good news.

A locust lands on a plant leaf at a farm in Elburgon, in Nakuru county, Kenya on March 17, 2021. It's the beginning of the planting season in Kenya, but delayed rains have brought a small amount of optimism in the fight against the locusts, which pose an unprecedented risk to agriculture-based livelihoods and food security in the already fragile Horn of Africa region. (AP Photo/Brian Inganga)
A locust lands on a plant leaf at a farm in Elburgon, in Nakuru county, Kenya, on March 17, 2021.
(AP Photo/Brian Inganga)
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"The current upsurge showed signs of significant decline during March as desert locust swarms continued to decrease in Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia due to ongoing control operations and poor rainfall," the FAO said in an update on April 3.

The swarms need the spring rains to mature and lay eggs.

"While this may still occur in April, below-normal rainfall expected this spring would limit breeding to parts of northern Kenya and southern Ethiopia at a much lower scale than last year. If this is followed by poor rainfall this summer in northeast Ethiopia, then the desert locust situation should return to normal," the briefing said.

That's welcome news in an area that has been devastated by the swarms.

A survey of households that raised crops in Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia found that one-third of them experienced losses because of locusts. Half of households that raised livestock saw losses.

In those impacted households, nearly seven out of every 10 experienced high or very high losses to their crops and rangeland, according to the survey, which was conducted by the Food Security and Nutrition Working Group.

The World Bank predicted damage and losses caused by the locusts in 2020 could reach $8.5 billion.

Aerial spraying is the biggest weapon against the locusts. The FAO reported it procured more than 220,000 gallons of pesticide and nearly 28,000 pounds of bio-pesticide.

Members of the National Youth Service spray pesticide on locusts at a farm in Elburgon, in Nakuru county, Kenya, on March 17, 2021. (AP Photo/Brian Inganga)
Members of the National Youth Service spray pesticide on locusts at a farm in Elburgon, in Nakuru county, Kenya, on March 17, 2021.
(AP Photo/Brian Inganga)

This year the swarms landed in more inhabited areas, and spraying couldn't be used as extensively because it could adversely affect people and livestock, Ambrose Nyatich, a livelihood recovery expert with the FAO, told the Associated Press.

Of course, the lack of rain at the beginning of planting season is a double-edged sword.

"Things have gone very bad. If you look at the farm, there is nothing," Hannah Nyokabi, a farmer who lives in the community of Baraka, told the AP. "We have children who are in school, and we were depending on the farm for their fees."

The Weather Company’s primary journalistic mission is to report on breaking weather news, the environment and the importance of science to our lives. This story does not necessarily represent the position of our parent company, IBM.

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