The UN has warned of the danger of famine in East Africa if huge swarms of locusts are not brought under control.
The insects have so far affected Ethiopia, Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda devouring crops and pasture in regions that are already suffering food shortages.
The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) is appealing for more funds for aerial spraying to contain the problem in the next few weeks. Otherwise, it says the locusts – already in the hundreds of billions – will multiply further, and massive humanitarian aid will be required.
“The good news is that we are in-between two cropping seasons, so we have a window of opportunity to reduce the burden of locusts ahead of the planting season that starts in March and April in most of the region,” FAO Director of Emergencies Dominique Burgeon told BBC Newsday.
David Beasley, director of the UN’s World Food Programme, has called for $76million (£53m) to pay for pesticides and planes to spray the swarms. He also warned that the countries being affected do not have the resources to combat the insects alone.
So far, only around $20 million has been received, roughly half of which came from a UN emergency fund.
Mr. Beasley also warned that some 13million people would need food supplies if the plague goes unchecked, at an estimated cost of $1billion. The locust invasion is the worst infestation in Kenya for 70 years and the worst in Somalia and Ethiopia for 25 years.
Kenya has begun spraying the swarms with pesticides, Uganda is sending the military to spray the insects, while Somalia has declared a state of emergency. It is thought the locust swarm began in war-ravaged Yemen three months ago, before moving to Ethiopia and Somalia in December. By the end of the month, they had reached Kenya, then crossed into Uganda in recent weeks.
Desert locusts are typically solitary creatures but can form into huge swarms under the right conditions. It is thought that heavy rainfall, which causes the population to boom, followed by a drought which forces the creatures into a smaller area is to blame.
As the group is forced together, the locusts’ bodies flood with a hormone called serotonin, which produces the swarming behaviour. The change is so dramatic that for decades scientists thought the solitary locusts and swarming variety were two different species until it was disproved.
The swarm then moves away from its traditional territory in search of more food and will keep going until the numbers fall back to sustainable levels, or the food runs out.
Somalia and Sudan faced a famine threat in 2017, while communities have also weathered poor rains, drought, and floods in the past two years.