Africa Locust Invasion Spreading, May Become ‘Devastating Plague,’ UN Warns

February 11, 2020 Updated: February 11, 2020

A United Nations official warned that an outbreak of tens of millions of locusts is spreading throughout East Africa and is ravaging its vital farmland, putting the lives of millions of people at risk.

The U.N.’s top humanitarian official, Mark Lowcock, said swarms of the insects crossed into Uganda overnight. And now, South Sudan and Tanzania, he said, are “on the watch list.”

“In this region, where there is so much suffering and so much vulnerability and fragility, we simply cannot afford another major shock. And that’s why we need to act quickly,” Lowcock said Feb. 10, according to a U.N. news release. “We do have a chance to nip this problem in the bud, but that’s not what we’re doing at the moment. We’re running out of time.”

At the same time, the locusts are putting a strain on an already hard-hit region, according to the intergovernmental organization. Sudan and Somalia faced famine threats in 2017, and in the past two years, droughts, poor rains, and even floods have affected communities in the region.

Such conditions, the U.N. official argued, create “the environment to facilitate the current locust outbreak.”

Somalia Africa Locust Outbreak
Pest-control sprayers demonstrate their work on the thorny bushes in the desert that is the breeding ground of desert locusts for a visiting delegation of Somali ministry officials and experts from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), in the desert near Garowe, in the semi-autonomous Puntland region of Somalia on Feb. 4, 2020. (Ben Curtis/AP Photo))
Somalia Africa Locust Outbreak
Pest-control sprayers in the Puntland region of Somalia on Feb. 4, 2020. (Ben Curtis/AP Photo)

And across the region, the swarms have the potential “to be the most devastating plague of locusts in any of our living memories if we don’t reduce the problem faster than we’re doing at the moment,” he said, according to NBC News.

Keith Cressman, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization’s senior locust forecasting officer, provided an update on the swarms in Kenya, adding that they have emerged from the Horn of Africa since the start of 2020.

“Over the weekend, they moved on the side of Mount Kilimanjaro across the border into Tanzania,” he said at the organization’s headquarters in New York City, reported The Associated Press. “Also over the weekend they moved into northeastern Uganda,” he added. “We’re expecting, any day, they will move across the border into the southeast corner of South Sudan.”

To combat the swarms, Ugandan authorities said they have transported pesticides to affected areas. Thousands of people have been mobilized.

“We are using motorized sprayers, a drone, and manual sprayers,” Stephen Byantwale, the commissioner for crop protection at the ministry of agriculture, told The Guardian. “They [locusts] are spreading like wildfire, so they are a real, major threat.”

Kenya Africa Locust Outbreak
A farmer looks back as she walks through swarms of desert locusts feeding on her crops, in Katitika village, Kenya, on Jan. 24, 2020. (Ben Curtis/AP Photo)

Locusts are a collection of several species of short-horned grasshoppers in the family Acrididae. The insects are generally solitary but under some conditions, they can become abundant and swarm.

Throughout human history, locusts have formed plagues and are mentioned by ancient Egyptians, in Homer’s “The Iliad,” by ancient Chinese historians, and in other sources. More famously, locusts are mentioned numerous times in the Bible, including in Revelation, Exodus, and in other books.