Countries in the Horn of Africa are in a race against time to tackle a desert locust invasion amidst ongoing humanitarian challenges, the United Nations has warned.
The observation came just a day after swarms crossed into Uganda, through the northeastern districts of Amudat and Nakapiripirit from neighbouring Kenya. The infestation in Uganda also puts Tanzania and South Sudan on the watch list, according to Mark Lowcock, the UN Emergency Relief Coordinator.
Lowcock, was addressing journalists alongside Dominique Burgeon, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) director of Emergencies, and Keith Cressman, FAO's senior locust forecasting officer.
"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," Mark Lowcock added, shortly before addressing ambassadors at the UN headquarters in New York.
He said the infestation in Kenya is the worst in 70 years, while Somalia and Ethiopia are experiencing their worst outbreaks in 25 years, putting crop production, food security and millions of lives at risk.
He said, "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."
Lowcock advised agencies and countries intending to support efforts against the migratory pests, not to think for so long. The locust threat comes as the region is recovering from what Lowcock described as recent "back-to-back shocks" which have undermined resilience, with some 19 million people at risk of experiencing severe food insecurity.
An average swarm, which contains up to 40 million insects, can travel up to 150km in a single day and can devour enough food to feed 34 million people within that time. Somalia and Sudan faced a famine threat in 2017, but communities have also weathered poor rains, drought and floods in the past two years.
"It is these weather events which are creating the environment to facilitate the current locust outbreak," Lowcock explained.
He added that unusually heavy rains and increase in the frequency in cyclones in the Indian Ocean have created favourable conditions for the locusts to breed. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) recently launched a $76 million appeal to control the locusts' spread. So far, only around $20 million has been received; roughly half of which came from a UN emergency fund.
"Without rapid action, we will be facing a rapidly expanding humanitarian crisis. The desert locust swarms are growing exponentially," FAO director-general Qu Dongyu warned in a video message.
Lowcock, also underscored the urgent need for action, particularly as the rainy season begins in March.
"I'm calling on the countries concerned, the international community, the donors, to step up and to step up now," he said. "There is a risk of a catastrophe. Perhaps we can prevent it; we have an obligation to try. Unless we act now, we're unlikely to do so."
Swarms of desert locusts were sighted in Abim and Katakwi districts on Monday evening. Abim district, located in Karamoja sub-region, borders Kapelebyong/ Amuria districts in Teso sub-region and Otuke/Agago districts in Lango sub-region.
In Abim, the locusts landed on Alerek rock in Alerek sub-county but were seen flying through Abim sub-county to Magamaga sub-county around 5:00pm. In Katakwi district, a swarm of locusts crossed Soroti- Moroto highway, about five kilometers from Katakwi town at 7:03pm.
Nelson Olwit, the Principal assistant secretary in Abim said the district is doing surveillance on the movement of the locusts. He noted that no team of experts to spray the locusts had arrived in the district then.
The desert locusts invaded the Karamoja sub-region on Sunday evening through Amudat district. The first swarm came from West Pokot through Kosike in Karita sub-county and flew towards Nakapiripirit and Nabilatuk areas. Another swarm came from Turkana county, Loima district in Kenya to Nakabaat in Rupa sub-county.
Dr Francis Inangolet, the district production and marketing officer of Moroto, says the insects were still in Rupa sub-county as other sub-counties had not yet reported the invasion.
He noted that the insects for now only feed on shrubs since most of the crops were harvested last year. On Monday, government airlifted pesticides for spraying desert locusts in Karamoja. Uganda last had desert locusts in the late 1960s and the current invasion is linked to climate change. According to IGAD, one swarm of locusts measures 60 kilometers long by 40 kilometers wide.
A typical desert locust swarm can contain up to 150 million locusts per square kilometre. UN reports indicate that locusts can reproduce rapidly and, if left unchecked, current numbers could grow 500 times by June. A swarm can destroy as much food crops in a day as is sufficient to feed 2,500 people.