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More losses loom as locust plague defies intervention amid raging blame game

By Jacqueline Mahugu | January 11th 2020
Agriculture, Fisheries, Livestock and Irrigation Principal Secretary Hamadi Boga, Agriculture CS Mwangi Kiunjuri and Agriculture and Irrigation CAS Andrew Tuimur address press on locust invasion. (Edward Kiplimi, Standard)

The locust invasion in Kenya is getting worse despite measures to control it.

Moving at a speed of over 130 kilometres per day, the government has been unable to contain the insects that have caused panic in Mandera, Wajir and Marsabit counties. They have now invaded Garissa, Isiolo and Samburu counties.

In response to the growing crisis, Agriculture CS Mwangi Kiunjuri said the government had intensified efforts to fight the pests.

Initial efforts included dispatching an aircraft to Wajir to spray the locusts, with complementary trained teams on the ground using vehicle-mounted and hand-held sprayers to monitor and spray the locusts.

“Today, the government has deployed a second air spray aircraft to Isiolo to reinforce the operations. Further, we have intensified monitoring through chiefs, warders, county commissioners and community members by asking that they locate, and report siting of any locust swarms at their resting habitats,” said Mr Kiunjuri.

The government is also organising trainings and emergency briefings for key officers to be deployed to the affected counties, in the event that the locusts spread to surrounding counties like Meru, Tharaka-Nithi, Kitui, Garissa, Embu and Laikipia.

Take pictures

The CS encouraged the public to take pictures of insects they suspect to be locusts and post them on social media for identification. He denied that the insects had been seen in Meru and dismissed them as long-horned variegated grasshoppers.

He gave numbers for the public to contact and report suspected locust citings, but efforts by the Saturday Standard to reach the given contacts were futile as calls went unanswered.

There are no figures yet on the amount of destruction the locusts have occasioned here so far, but they have destroyed 175,000 acres of farmland in Somalia and Ethiopia according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).

The locust invasion is considered a disaster as they can cause widespread famine in a short time. Part of an average swarm can eat the same amount of food in one day as about 10 elephants or 25 camels or 2,500 people, according to NASA’s Earth Observatory.

“The swarms of locusts are feeding in a non-discriminatory manner on green matter. This will bring famine to both humans and animals,” said Timothy Munywoki, senior agronomist at Amiran Kenya Limited in charge of crop protection and product development.

Mr Munywoki said the number of aircrafts being used to spray the locusts were too few and would give room for the pests to migrate. “Controlling them will be a challenge unless the government increases capitation and tools to control the pests,” he said.

Kenya had a locust invasion in 2007 but the situation was contained. The last time the country had a locust invasion that was similarly threatening was in 1961. The Desert Locust Control Organisation for Eastern Africa (DLCO-EA) was formed in 1962 in response to the plague and that of the 1940s that ravaged the Eastern Africa region, causing massive hunger and deaths across the region.

The current locust plague originated in the Middle East and is the world’s worst plague in 25 years. The main reason the locusts have managed to spread so widely is a combination of weather patterns favourable to their spread coinciding with ongoing political crises in the regions where the locusts originated from due to little to no measures were put in place to control them. That was also the case when they crossed into Africa, mainly Ethiopia and Somalia.

Speaking to NPR radio, Keith Cressman, senior locust forecasting officer for the United Nations’ Agricultural Agency, said this infestation started a year and a half ago when two rare cyclones hit the Arabian Peninsula.

The swarm drifted with the winds to Iran, which, under sanctions, did not have the right pesticides to fight it. The swarm then proceeded to the border between India and Pakistan, then to Yemen where no action was taken, finally crossing the Gulf of Aden into Ethiopia and Somalia. The first swarm crossed the border from Somalia into Kenya on December 28, 2019.

“They are trans-boundary pests that must be fought through a regional strategy to ensure they are attacked from their resting habitats. Unfortunately, because of insecurity in some of our neighbouring countries, it has been difficult to fight and prevent their migration,” said Kiunjuri.

The CS also said there were indications FAO would be providing support to enable the government acquire a third aircraft and more chemicals to combat the menace.

“We had requested for Sh254 million. Today morning I had a discussion with FAO and they have passed a budget of Sh50 million,” said Kiunjuri. “They are going to give more money in the course of the week.” The abundant rainfall the region has had caused the locusts to multiply rapidly, and if left uncontrolled, will spell doom for the country.

According to Dr George Ong’amo, Senior lecturer at the University of Nairobi, School of Biological Sciences, the measures the country has put in place might help curb the impending disaster.

“They are moving very fast and the population was large when they first came in but given that there are people on the ground spraying them, the population keeps reducing,” he said.

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