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Kenya beats back desert locust upsurge for now, but East Africa remains at risk

Cyril Ferrand, Food and Agriculture Organizations (FAO) resilience team leader for East Africa, has highlighted the UN organisation’s progress in combating Desert Locusts in East African countries

How is the Desert Locust campaign in East Africa going?

At the moment, FAO is fighting the second generation of Desert Locusts. We have made significant progress in a number of countries, especially in Kenya, where only two of the 29 counties that were infested in February have Desert Locusts today. In the coming days, that will drop to one county, and within three weeks Kenya should be free of large-scale infestations altogether. That is a success but the threat of possible re-infestation towards the end of the year will call for careful and continued surveillance. 

Unfortunately, Ethiopia is still infested with a second breeding generation, and also partly re-infested by swarms from Kenya. Ethiopia is also under threat from new swarms arriving from Yemen. A lot of work has been done in Ethiopia but unfortunately the battle will continue there until the end of the year. In Somalia we are also making progress, despite security issues, but breeding is expected in the north. We expect summer locust breeding in the Sudan and western Eritrea.

We know we cannot defeat an upsurge of Desert Locusts globally in only a few months. Of course the locust situation in Yemen and Southwest Asia remains a concern –  but I have to say when it comes to East Africa, we have made a lot of progress in the entire region, where expertise was very low at the beginning. Some of the affected countries had not seen Desert Locusts for decades - in the case of Kenya it was 70 years. Of course, there is still a need to build up monitoring and response capacity across the region, to be ready if a renewed upsurge occurs.

How extensive have Desert Locust control operations been?

The figures are changing every day because we are doing surveillance and control every day. But from the beginning of January up until the end of June we had controlled nearly 600,000 ha, which is a really large amount for this region.

We estimate that so far we have killed more than 400bn locusts in the entire region. That is really a lot. That is 400-500bn locusts that were prevented from damaging crops and rangelands.

What are the challenges now with the new swarms?

One challenge is the high mobility of Desert Locusts. We need a very agile operation to follow the swarms and the juvenile locusts. With swarms that can move up to 150km per day, this requires all the assets, pesticides, planes, helicopters, fuel, plus the teams on the ground doing scouting and surveillance, to be moved accordingly.

The other challenge is that Desert Locusts have been moving to very remote areas, to immense territories where they spread out. In Ethiopia they are scattered across the Somali region, for example -- a huge territory that requires capacity on the ground and in the air for surveillance. Ground surveillance is not sufficient. That is why we have hired helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft with long range coverage. So, one of the big challenges is these new locations which are hard to reach and have little infrastructure and few people on the ground.

How do you manage to fight locusts with the impact of COVID-19?

This is another challenge. Training locust scouts, for example, is now harder. Social distance has to be kept and too many people cannot be trained at the same time, so the size of the classes has to be decreased and the frequency of smaller group sessions increased. But still, we have managed to train over 1,000 people.

Fortunately, governments have declared COVID-19 a national priority -- that means our ground teams can operate. But with the curfew in Kenya, for example, the number of hours that the teams can operate has been reduced.

What impact have Desert Locusts had on food security and agricultural livelihoods?

FAO and partners were able to prevent the first generation of locusts that emerged in February from causing significant damage to crops in Ethiopia and Kenya. The bread basket areas high potential crops have been spared largely due to the control operations. But regarding the agro-pastoral and pastoral livelihoods in areas where locusts have found good locations for breeding, we have seen damage. That is very clear.

We are still assessing the damage, but we have noticed abnormal poor livestock body condition in areas where Desert Locusts were present. That indicates that grazing was limited in these areas this season and indicates that pastureland was not widely available in areas affected by Desert Locusts, despite good rains. That is a concern as we are now entering the dry season. Normally, we would only see poor livestock body condition during the dry season. Now we are seeing it even in the middle of the rainy season, which is really abnormal.