Farmers’ woes pour from the skies: From heavy rainfall to desert locusts

Tuesday January 21 2020

Barely one month after floodwater destroyed crops, farmers have to contend with a locust infestation. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

By The EastAfrican

The swarm of locusts that has invaded the Horn of Africa, raiding the crops, and pasture, now poses a danger to food production in the region. It could also raise the risk of human-wildlife conflict as animals could be forced to forage on farmlands that will have anything green left.

The United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) announced this week that some 8.4 million people may need food relief this year in Ethiopia.

The majority of the vulnerable people are in Oromia, Ethiopia's largest region, the UNOCHA said in its latest Humanitarian Needs Overview of Ethiopia for 2020. About 2.4 million people, or 39 per cent of the total population, in Ethiopia’s Somali region are also projected to require humanitarian needs over the course of 2020, followed by Amhara region, with one million people.

Crop and pasture loss due to desert locust infestations in parts of Afar, Amhara and Tigray regions was taken into consideration when calculating the people in need of food assistance, it was noted.

In Ethiopia and Somalia, the desert locusts had destroyed more than 170,000 acres of crops and pasture land by December last year, one estimate by the Igad Centre for Pastoral Areas and Livestock Development stated.

In Kenya, more than 200,000 hectares of pasture and crops land has been destroyed by the locusts in Mandera, Marsabit, Wajir, Isiolo, Meru and Samburu counties, local county agriculture officials estimated. By end of last week, the insects had, however, covered more than one million hectares of land in Kenya, threatening more crops and pasture in their wake, they added.


Kenneth Mwangi, a satellite information analyst with Igad Climate Prediction and Applications Centre, told The EastAfrican that a late response to early warning information in the region has led to further spread of the swarms.

But he added Uganda and South Sudan should learn from neighbour’s failures and have resources in place to stop the desert locusts.

“If the eggs laid in the region are not identified and destroyed, more swarms will form and invade areas with vegetation.

Kenya’s Agriculture Principal Secretary Hamadi Boga said the government was yet to quantify the loss as the focus was on controlling the spread, for now.

That control, though, appeared to lose the contest to the insects.

FAO warned that the locusts could head to Baringo County, Turkana, Tana River, north east Uganda, and south east South Sudan.

“The desert locusts pose a risk to wildlife habitats as well as farm crops. Several community wildlife conservancies in Isiolo and Samburu are at risk.

“So far, the swarms have destroyed shrubs which may lead to shortage of pasture for animals leading to human-wildlife conflicts,” Lewa Conservancy chief operating officer Tuqa Jirmo said.

Lewa Conservancy, created in 1995, is home to wildlife including the rare and endangered black rhino, Grevy's zebra and sitatungas.

Besides the slow response to early warnings issued by FAO in October and December last year, authorities are now fighting accusations of using ineffective methods of eliminating the pests, insecurity and lack of resources are setting the region for acute famine.

In Mandera where Governor Ali Roba says no aerial intervention is yet to be done, the locusts have covered 1.2 million hectares of pasture land, he told journalists this week.

Wajir’s County’s Agriculture County Executive Ahmed Shariff said the desert locusts destroyed 250,000 acres of pasture and 3,000 hectares of crops in the area, while in Isiolo and Meru, the locusts have completely destroyed more than 15,000 hectares of pasture leaving thousands of livestock staring at starvation, officials claimed.

Marsabit Agriculture Executive Mohammed Omar said more than 100 hectares of maize, beans and peas farms were destroyed at Dogogicha and Sagante-Jaldesa within 15 minutes.

The teams co-ordinating control of swarms in Isiolo have cited various hiccups.

By Tuesday, farm owners who are supporting the operation estimated to have spent more than $50,000 in containing desert locusts in Meru, Samburu and Isiolo.

Even then, The EastAfrican learnt that Vanish 64 pesticide being used for aerial spraying was ineffective (only successful at a 1-2 per cent rate) leading to calls for the government to provide a stronger chemical.

“We are yet to get the right chemical for the locusts. Those provided are not adequate and are ineffective since the swarms are still active. We need more support from the government to control the locusts,” Dr Jirmo said.

A report by the regional joint team of eight counties monitoring the situation showed that the locusts were still active, feeding and moving on Wednesday morning despite being sprayed on with the insecticides for two consecutive days.

An official from the Agriculture Ministry said the government was securing more resources from the Treasury for hiring of more aircraft and buying pesticides to bolster surveillance efforts.

“We are sourcing Fenitrothione after realising that Fenthione that we were about to buy is not effective,” the officer said, referring to the brands of the chemicals in use, which are supposed to immobilise the insects, rendering them unable to move to the next feeding zones.

By David Muchui, Waweru Wairimu, Jacob Walter and Bruhan Makong