A historic desert locust infestation in East Africa could cause the next major famine as people in the region are already struggling with hunger after droughts were followed by cyclone flooding, one of the world’s leading evangelical charities has warned.
A growing spread of city-sized swarms of locusts has reached seven East African countries in recent months. The invasion has been described as something similar to an account from the book of Exodus as the grasshoppers have torn through crops, grass and other green vegetation.
Experts say the crisis might be the result of exceptionally wet weather from rare cyclones that hit the Arabian Peninsula and East Africa in December. The crisis is expected to grow as locusts are breeding and migrating. Additionally, drier weather could lead to an exponential increase in the number of locusts in the region.
The U.N. has warned that the outbreak has already damaged tens of thousands of hectares of cropland across the Greater Horn of Africa, signifying the worst locust outbreak in Kenya in over 70 years and the worst outbreaks in Ethiopia and Somalia in 25 years.
World Vision, which partners with communities across two dozen countries in Africa, is working with governments and community leaders to find practical solutions to the crisis before the swarms can ruin the upcoming farming season.
“They're moving very, very fast. And they are on a very, very large scale unprecedented in the region,” Joseph Kamara, World Vision’s regional director for humanitarian and emergency affairs in East Africa, told The Christian Post.
“When they get to a place, they rest and eat and lay eggs and then move on. And when they move on, the eggs hatch. They multiply very quickly and very fast.”
Kamara explained that locusts consume “anything green” — from trees and leaves to crops and grass used to feed livestock. A typical swarm is about 150 million locusts large and can be pushed by wind up to 150 kilometers per day.
“[From what] I understand their appetite is quite huge,” Kamara said. “A swarm eats more than elephants in terms of quantity. And that's just one swarm. So if each locust lays about 900 eggs, you can imagine what that means.”
According to the U.N., one swarm can eat as much in vegetation as 35,000 humans.
The biggest worry, Kamara said, is if the crisis is not controlled by the time cropping season rolls around. He stressed that the region is already facing food deficits after many crops were destroyed by flooding last year.
“So if we haven't controlled them, then the region is facing famine, not just a food crisis, but a potential famine,” he stressed.
The most effective solution is an environmentally-friendly aerial pesticide spray that kills the insects.
Although there are government efforts to spray the insects by aircraft and manually on the ground, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization reports that “capacities are stretched to the limit by the speed of the pests and the scale of infestation.”
The U.N. explained last month that as much as $76 million will be needed to help combat the crisis.
World Vision is among the organizations providing logistical support to the FAO and governments to curb the problem.
Kamara said that spraying has to be coordinated with communities on the ground to ensure correct timing since the spray dissipates in 24 hours.
One of the biggest concerns, Kamara said, are rural areas of Somalia controlled by the terror group al-Shabaab.
“Even if spraying is done by light aircraft and manually by people moving, that's not going to happen in those areas,” he said. “This means those areas will continue breeding them. That is likely to remain a challenge for the rest of the region.”
Kamara said that World Vision is actively working with communities impacted by locusts to come up with other solutions to the problem. He said that World Vision leaders have hosted discussion sessions with community members in several local government districts in Kenya.
In some communities, the locust infestation has impacted the education of children. Considering many who live in rural communities are subsistence farmers, kids are being pulled from school and spend their days chasing locusts away from gardens and grazing areas.
“It makes the community feel more comfortable because they chase them away, but it affects children’s time in school because children haven’t learned anything,” Kamara said. “They are just making noise and chasing these things away.”
Kamara said World Vision is also working with communities to figure out how to use the insects to create development projects that will make a difference in those communities.
“We are trying to see if we can come up with some innovation,” he said. “In Uganda, where we were last Sunday, people started eating them, which is great. But there are so many, you can’t eat all of them because they have high-fat contents.”
World Vision was already supplying food, seeds, and other assistance to many households across East Africa struggling with food shortages prior to the locust invasion.
“There has been a food deficit,” Kamara stressed. “But I fear that this is going to worsen. If we don’t control [the locusts] and we lose the coming [cropping] season, that is going to put about 90 million people across the region through a serious food crisis.”
Kamara called on people around the world to keep East Africa in their prayers.
“After back-to-back droughts and then floods and now this, it’s like we need divine intervention — God’s hand,” Kamara said. “Also, we need people to continue being generous and support our efforts to reach out to the people.“
During a trip to Ethiopia on Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pledged that the U.S. will give $8 million toward regional locust control operations in Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia.