In the county of Turkana in northwestern Kenya, one of the worst-hit areas in Africa’s locust outbreak, people serve as scouts using an app called e-Locust to report sightings of the pests in real time. They upload photos and videos with information about the location and size of locusts to a shared database. Another team uses the information to deploy pesticides to the area to prevent the insects from forming a moving swarm.
The worst locust outbreak in 70 years has plagued East Africa since late 2019, spurring people to look for creative solutions. By March, the insects had already destroyed hundreds of thousands of acres of cropland. Experts have warned more desert locust eggs are already hatching, raising concerns the swarms will wreak more havoc and possibly expand into West Africa.
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the regional government in Kenya have formed a partnership with the aid group Acted to create the e-Locust program. The early warning scouts are just part of the group’s efforts to establish 126 desert locust management teams in four counties, including Turkana, according to Acted. The teams already have used hand pumps and motorized sprayers on more than 1,000 acres in five weeks.
Boris Polo, a logistician who runs a helicopter company, is also working with the FAO in Kenya to identify locust swarms from the air for targeted pesticide spraying. He said he hopes to minimize the damage: “It sounds grim because there’s no way you’re gonna kill all of them because the areas are so vast.”
Even a small swarm of the desert locusts can consume enough food for about 35,000 people in a single day. Once the yellow insects grow from young hoppers to fully formed flying swarms, they can cover up to 124 miles a day. The World Bank has said the locusts could cost East Africa and Yemen $8.5 billion this year.
In places like Somalia, armed conflict has made it difficult to access some of the locusts’ breeding areas, researchers with an intergovernmental climate prediction agency wrote in the July issue of the journal Nature Climate Change. “The limited financial capacity of some of the affected countries and the lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic have further hampered control efforts,” they said. “In many cases, the required pesticides, protective gear, and locust control experts were not made available in time to allow effective control at the local level.”
A fourth generation of locusts is beginning to hatch and could swell the population to 8,000 times the current infestation, according to the International Rescue Committee. “This coincides with the start of harvest season, and will be compounded by the COVID-19 emergency,” the group noted. “Pasture for livestock is also in jeopardy.”
In a report released on July 3, the FAO urged Ethiopia, India, Pakistan, Sudan, and South Sudan to remain on high alert over the next four weeks. The agency also asked West African nations to continue preparing for infestations after warning earlier the swarms could cross into the region from the Sahel belt just south of the Sahara Desert.
Meanwhile, the World Bank approved a $500 billion program to assist nations in Africa and the Middle East battling the ravaging pests, focusing on devastated households and farmers. The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration joined forces with the FAO to modify technology used to track plumes from volcanoes and wildfires to predict the migratory path of the swarms.