Anne O'Mahony: farmers in the eye of the swarm as locusts descend

Outbreaks the size of small cities are spreading across East Africa, with the flying insects devouring crops and depriving many millions of people of food, says Anne O’Mahony

Anne O'Mahony: farmers in the eye of the swarm as locusts descend

Outbreaks the size of small cities are spreading across East Africa, with the flying insects devouring crops and depriving many millions of people of food, says Anne O’Mahony

In East Africa, desert locust swarms the size of Cork are devouring crops, plants, and grass. A humanitarian crisis is looming.

Food supplies and livelihoods are under threat from these hugely destructive, migratory pests rampaging through some of the world’s poorest countries, countries already devastated by successive years of droughts, floods, and conflict.

Each swarm can contain hundreds of millions of desert locusts and can travel up to 150km a day. A swarm of one square kilometre is capable of eating in a day the same amount as 35,000 people.

There are reports in Kenya of swarms measuring 60km by 40km. Their potential for destruction is enormous and people who live in countries vulnerable to these infestations pray that they never occur there.

The desert locust is normally a fairly benign, little, lone grasshopper in desert conditions and with well-developed survival mechanisms. But when the weather changes to moist, warm conditions, the locusts transform rapidly.

They change colour from a camouflage brown to bright yellow and begin to swarm.

They develop ferocious appetites and then they take off, eating everything in sight, growing and multiplying as they travel, and depositing their eggs.

The eggs rapidly hatch in favourable conditions to swell existing swarms, and on they go, leaving wasteland and devastation in their wake.

The situation today is particularly worrying in Ethiopia, Somalia, and Kenya, with Sudan and South Sudan also at risk. Pakistan is affected, too. The government in Somalia hasdeclared a national emergency.

The UN says this is the worst desert locust outbreak in decades and a major threat to tens of millions of people in countries in East Africa who could be left with nothing to eat and forced tomigrate.

The swarms in Kenya are the largest in 70 years. People there have witnessed their fields of crops being devoured in 30 minutes. And this is just the first wave.

Desert locusts lay eggs as they migrate, so unless the spraying by governments and by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) is successful, a new generation of locusts will take flight in March or April, followed by more and more swarms.

The FAO warns that locust numbers could increase 500 times by June. This would be a catastrophe for people and economies, with food supplies running critically low and prices likely to skyrocket in rural and urban areas. Livestock populations will also dwindle, due to pastures being eaten by the swarming locusts. Cows and goats will simply collapse from starvation and waste away.

These are countries that are already extremely vulnerable and which have suffered enough tragedy and hardship, which is why Concern Worldwide is there and it is also why we are launching a major appeal to fund our response to help every family that we can.

We work with extremely poor and vulnerable communities and we have supported countries such as Kenya and Somalia to cope with drought. We helped them build their resilience and ability to cope through tough times. We brought severely malnourished children back to health and assisted families as they grew food and kept livestock.

Last year, heavy rains caused flooding. There was a certain amount of destruction, but water adds life to the soil and when the floods receded, it was wonderful to see the land coming to life and deserts greening up.

Crop growth also brought optimism and excitement for the harvest to come. Families hoped for a less eventful year, when they could simply have enough food to eat and stay healthy, with something left over to sell in order to keep their children in school.

But just as the harvest was ready, the locusts came. Everything the farmers had worked for was gone. I can’t imagine how they felt. It is incredibly unfair that people should be subjected to one wave of crisis after another. In this case, it is years of droughts, then floods, and now locust swarms, while countries such as Somalia also have ongoing military conflicts.

The wider consequence of the locust infestation is that it is affecting not just populations in marginalised areas, but larger, urban populations, too.

As food shortages kick in, there will be inflationary pressures on the markets and urban slum populations won’t be able to afford the food they require to feed their families.

Salaries won’t go up, but a mother’s ability to feed her children will go way down. This is so distressing.

For many of the people we help across Somalia, Ethiopia, and Kenya, who have worked so hard to plant and grow, the locust invasion is the final straw. It’s just heart-breaking.

Our job now, at Concern, is to look at how to support them. We will strive to enable them to stay in their homes until they are, once again, able to plant, grow, and harvest.

That’s going to be our job for the next number of months and I appeal to anyone reading this to help us help them.

Anne O’Mahony is the director of international programmes at Concern Worldwide. To donate to Concern’s East Africa locust emergency appeal, or phone 1850 211 844.

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