A region looking over its shoulders

Kenya and other East Africa are wary about the invasion of locusts.
Swarms of desert locusts fly up into the air from crops in Katitika village, Kitui county, Kenya Friday, Jan. 24, 2020. Desert locusts have swarmed into Kenya by the hundreds of millions from Somalia and Ethiopia, countries that haven’t seen such numbers in a quarter-century, destroying farmland and threatening an already vulnerable region. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis)

Locusts are famed for their ravaging and destructive nature. Old Biblical accounts describe them as such, and in recent times, they have done little to change that impression, flying across continents and causing damage to agricultural systems.

These pests, known and feared for the amount of carnage they are capable of inflicting on vegetation, are currently darkening the skies across farmlands in Kenya, Ethiopia and other parts of East Africa. Breeding in parts of Yemen and Somalia, they migrate westwards to a climate currently characterised by frequent rainfall.

According to statistics provided by the United Nations, locusts could travel up to 150km (95 miles) in a day and eat their own body weight in greenery. What this means is that a swarm of locusts can eat as much food as 35,000 people in a day. Furthermore, during each three-month breeding cycle a single locust can breed 20 more, giving rise to the massive swarms that are now threatening crops across the East African sub-region.

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Kenya, Somalia, Eritrea and Djibouti are battling the worst locust outbreak in decades, and swarms have also spread into Tanzania and Uganda. The invasion is worsening food shortages in a region where up to 25 million people are suffering after three consecutive years of droughts and floods, worryingly similar to the drought and famine that plagued northern Ethiopia in 1954 which was also caused by locust invasion.

According to pest control experts, the best option is to kill these menacing insects, and while there is the required technology to execute this, the quantity of said technology is debatable: Ethiopia reportedly has only three operational planes to spray insecticides, while Kenya has only five. According to the United Nations, about $76 million is urgently needed to provide more spraying resources in combating these pests.

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It’s ironic that after the drought that haunted the region in late 2019, there is now rain which has facilitated the growth of crops, but the rain is not only providing a fertile environment for the breeding of locust eggs, it is also making it harder to spray insecticides. This is because it is more effective to kill locusts in the morning as they usually have little energy before the day warms up, but frequent early morning rain slows down spraying missions, and by the time the planes get close, the swarms are already high up in the air.

It is uncertain how long this pest invasion will last, so the best course of action is for the United Nations to collaborate with the countries in the sub-region, particularly in the provision of more insecticides and more spraying planes. It’s a long season up ahead, and if East Africa is going to repel the danger of a food crisis, these locusts cannot be allowed to win.

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