East Africa is experiencing one of the worst locust invasions in decades. If the chaotic reactions in Kenya and Uganda demonstrate anything, it is the loss of communal and institutional memory about an omnipresent, if rare threat.
Commentators are describing the invasion as the most serious in 70 years. That is, however, only partially true if one is looking at North Africa where an outbreak occurred in 2003.Few, if any people born in East Africa after 1962, have actually witnessed an invasion on this current scale.
The lone desert locust continues to appear once in a while, but it does not trigger the reflex of urgency, thanks to the successful control efforts between 1940 and 1962. Records show that the last significant upsurge in East Africa occurred around 1967. That suggests a majority of people living in the region today have a mostly academic idea of what an invasion entails.
This has been evident in the response to the current invasion. In northern Kenya, images of desperate folk trying to beat or shout away the flying invaders with little effect, have gripped the attention of a global audience.
In Kampala, where the Desert Locust Control Organisation of East Africa is headquartered, the premises have long appeared redundant. There is little evidence of a co-ordinated regional response beyond sharing information. Used to external aid, South Sudan, a likely victim, possibly looks at the imminent threat as another problem for the international community.
Despite early warnings, there has been a degree of panicky reaction around the region. Typical of our new faith in the digital age, Kenya’s first attempts at keeping track of the swarms involved asking citizens to share images of the invasion in their area.
In Uganda, the weakness of institutional arrangements and poor regional co-ordination was very much in evidence, when in addition to mobilising some eight aircraft for likely aerial spraying, the police and military were put on alert.
The timing of the current invasion couldn’t have been worse, coming on the shoulder of good rains and the promise of a bumper harvest. Even more poignant, is that the invasion is tracking the most vulnerable communities, exposing many to hunger and economic ruin.
It would be far more productive for Uganda to deploy its resources across the border, to fight the invasion with Kenya. With a single swarm covering hundreds of square kilometres and moving as many as 150 kilometres in a single day; attacking the problem in advance, would minimise the possibility of the locusts arriving in the country at all, while also limiting the impact on Kenya.
Invasions can be costly to fight, and prevention is always cheaper. An outbreak that covered 20 countries in North Africa in 2003, cost $500 million and two years to contain. Food worth $2.5 billion was lost to the swarms.
In light of the gaping resource gap, it would be good for Kenya and Uganda to pool technical and material resources. That way both countries will end up spending much less on control efforts.