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Experts fear perfect storm of desert locusts

East Africa faces the worst invasion of desert locust swarms in decades from a new generation of the world’s oldest and most destructive migratory pest.

East Africa faces the worst invasion of desert locust swarms in decades from a new generation of the world’s oldest and most destructive migratory pest hatching just in time for planting season, U.N. officials warned on Monday.

As rainy season approaches, Horn of Africa nations have little time to prepare for an invasion certain to exacerbate the region's already dire humanitarian crises, said U.N. officials from the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, or OCHA, and the Food and Agriculture Organization, or FAO.

Heavy rains last year contributed to the locust outbreak that has destroyed crops, farmland and forest cover in eastern Ethiopia, neighboring areas of Somalia, and Kenya. A new generation of desert locusts is about to hatch in eastern Africa that is expected to form swarms 2o times bigger than before.

And in a region already suffering from severe hunger — some 30 million eastern Africans are considered "food insecure," including 10 million directly in locust-hit areas, according to United Nations estimates — the desert locust swarms stand to devastate remaining crops and pastures.

"Last month, there was a swarm of we think between 100 and 200 billion locusts in Kenya," Mark Lowcock, head of OCHA, told a news briefing in New York. "They have the capacity to consume the same as 84 million people in one day."


FAO launched a US$76 million appeal for donations to deal with the pests through surveillance and controls, mostly aerial pesticide spraying. Only US$20 million has been pledged so far, and half of that was released by Lowcock from an emergency fund.

Lowcock, a U.N. undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator, said he hoped the emergency money would inspire other donors to contribute and prevent having to spend an even greater amount later on if the problem were to continue unchecked.

"Unless we get a grip on this in the next two or three or four weeks, we're worried we're going to have a really, really serious problem," he said.

Kenya has not experienced a locust swarm this destructive for 70 years, while Ethiopia and Somalia have not seen one this bad for 25 years. Experts say climate change in the region can be expected to bring more such heavy rains that are favorable to breeding.

"More cyclones in the Indian Ocean and the kind of weather patterns we've seen" have been making locust swarms more likely, said Lowcock, adding, "So this is another dimension of the climate emergency."

Dominique Burgeon, FAO's director of emergencies, said a series of cyclones since 2018 brought a lot of moisture to areas of East Africa that are inaccessible, creating conditions that have helped a massive number of locusts to quickly breed and become "voracious" eaters ahead of the next planting season.

"They will be ready (to cause) very large damage in March and April," he said. "This is an event that is occurring very rarely."