The horde of 360 billion insects were spotted crossing into the Karamoja border region in the northeast of Uganda by border officials who sounded an alarm. Locusts devastated food supplies across the Horn of Africa after the United Nations’s Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) warned of an emerging humanitarian crisis last month. Somalia has already declared a state of emergency due to the damaging loss of vital crops which the insects have munched their way through.
The plague of locusts began in east Somalia last year before reaching Ethiopia and spreading into Kenya, leaving a trail of destroyed farmlands.
In attempts to control the swarm and save crops, Kenyan authorities have deployed planes to spray pesticides over areas in the north of the country.
Experts say the scale of the infestation is beyond the capacity of local efforts as desert locusts can travel up to 150km in a day.
The UN is set to test drones with mapping sensors and atomisers to spray pesticides. Officials in Kenya believe this could play an important role due to the limited number of aircrafts available.
Keith Cressman, the FAO’s senior locust swarm forecaster, said the drone prototypes will be able to detect swarms with special sensors. He added: “Nobody’s ever done this with desert locusts before.”
Tackling the problem through aerial spraying has been made even more difficult in Somalia as large areas are under threat, or held by, the al-Qaida-linked al-Shabab extremist group.
The UN’s Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, has called for more support from the rest of the world.
He said: “The UN has issued an urgent appeal for assistance. I ask the international community to respond with speed and generosity to ensure an effective response and control the infestation while we still have the chance.”
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When an entire region is affected, the FAO says it is known as an ‘upsurge’, but if the situation gets worse and cannot be contained over a year or more, it is referred to as a ‘plague’ of locusts.
Africa’s last major upsurge hit the region in 1987 to 89, before then there have been five other major locust plagues in the 1900s.
This year’s swarm has been declared as the worst plague to sweep Kenya for 70 years, and the worst to reach Ethiopia and Somalia for 25 years.
When rains arrive in march bringing new vegetation and the next generation hatches by June, it is estimated that the horde could grow 500 times bigger, a million of which could eat enough food for 35,000 people in a day.
Maria Semedo, the FAO’s deputy director-general for climate and natural resources, has warned that countries need to act “immediately” because “locusts don’t wait. They will come and they will destroy.
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“We need to tackle the emergency but we need to think about livelihoods and the long-term.”
The director-general of the FAO, Qu Dongyu, has called for funding to be provided urgently to help secure the region after already using $15.4 million of the $76 million they had requested to tackle the emerging humanitarian crisis.
The UN says about $54million is needed to support aerial pesticide spraying while the FAO are estimating that Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia collectively need $70million to tackle the swarm.
David Mwangi, head of plant protection at Kenya’s ministry of agriculture, said: “Every country wants an aircraft, but we only have five at the moment and they can only be in one location at one time.
We have not used drones before, but I think it’s worth testing them as they could help.”
Many counties in Kenya including Isiolo, Samburu, Wajir and Garissa have been subject to devastating droughts and floods in recent years.
It is estimated that over three million people across 13 Kenyan counties are suffering from severe acute food insecurity with many relying on agriculture for their survival.
Kenyan officials say drones may be able to help control the swarm and save the African crops.