A gigantic swarm of locusts is expected to descend on East and Horn of Africa countries causing huge destruction of crops, the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) has warned.
The second wave of invasion in six months will cause more destruction as it will find young and supple crops, as per predictions of the United Nations agency.
This will deal a double blow to food security in a region that is already grappling with widespread economic disruption from the coronavirus pandemic.
"The concern at the moment is that the desert locust will eat under-emerging plants," said Cyril Ferrand, FAO's resilience team leader for Eastern Africa.
"This very soft, green material, biomass leaves, rangeland, is, of course, the favorite food for the desert locusts."
Two new generations of locusts are set to descend on Eastern Africa in June, before heading to Asia, yet the region seems ill-prepared to deal with them.
20 times in size
FAO, the body responsible for overseeing response to the locusts, warns that the new generation is up to 20 times in size and 400 times stronger thereby posing a food insecurity threat to the East African region.
In a March Desert Locust Situation Update, FAO said the locust situation remained "extremely alarming in the Horn of Africa," specifically Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia where widespread breeding is in progress and new swarms are starting to form, representing an unprecedented threat to food security and livelihoods at the beginning of the upcoming season.
FAO warns that it will be too late to stop the locusts from spreading in less than six months, thereby inviting starvation to millions.
Current solutions have not and will not work, the agency warns, as the sizes of the swarms are too big for aerial spraying. Further, current spraying practices don't kill everything, leaving bugs in the ground.
FAO is also concerned that the chemicals used will kill wildlife and damage food supplies.
Despite FAO's warning, EAC partner States remain unprepared to deal with the threat.
Rwanda, through FAO's Regional Commission for Controlling Desert Locust in the Central Region, trained 20 agriculture experts on Desert Locust survey and control operations in March this year.
No other East African country has officially laid down plans on how to deal with the situation.
"With this training and other existing activity, we believe that if the desert locusts invaded our country today we will be able to defend Rwandan farmers. Rwanda looks forward to building relations with FAO-CRC as regards to desert locust contro," said Izamuhaye Jean Claude, the Head of Department, Crop Research and Technology Transfer at Rwanda Agriculture and Animal Resources Development Board (RAB).
The EAC Council of Ministers in charge of Agriculture and chaired by Rwanda's Agriculture minister, Geraldine Mukeshimana, is yet to officially meet over the new threat of locusts invasion, which FAO predicts will be severely and possibly permanently damaging to all local ecosystems in their path.
"FAO believes in preparedness and readiness for a country to be in a better position to control and management of the Desert locusts. We wish all countries to have a contingency plan in place to deal with Desert Locust invasion," said Essam Mahmoud Khalifah from the FAO-CRC soon after training farmers in Rwanda.
Although the Kenyan government set aside Ksh200 million ($2 million) to combat the invasion, its response was delayed for several weeks, due to a lack of adequate pesticides and an insufficient number of spraying planes.
In January this year, Agriculture Cabinet Secretary Peter Munya admitted that pesticides used for aerial spraying in the latter counties were ineffective and that the government had been struggling to find most effective ones.
Although he projected the eradication of the swarms by June 2020, the current revelations by FAO threatens his projection.
Already Covid-19 poses a challenge to control activities. Disruptions to supply chains have stalled delivery of pesticide shipments, creating stockouts and shortages.
Surveillance equipment, such as helicopters from South Africa, cannot reach East Africa because of lockdowns in countries where they would normally stop to refuel on their journeys north.
Uganda's Agriculture Minister Vincent Ssempijja has warned that even though the new invasion of locusts has the potential to destroy vegetation, posing a threat to food security, the Covid-19 pandemic has slowed down government efforts.
"We have deployed more than 2,000 military troops to carry out control operations. But due to Coronavirus control measures in place in Uganda right now there are skeletal staff supporting the field control activities," said Ssempija.
If control activities fail and the locusts do not move out of the region, FAO fears that up to an additional 5 million people could become food insecure in East Africa by June of this year.