Spray planes bid to combat huge locust outbreak in east Africa

By Joe Mwihia, Associated Press

Small planes are flying low over parts of Kenya to spray pesticides in a bid to control the worst outbreak of locusts in 70 years,

It is challenging work, especially in remote areas where mobile phone signals are absent and ground crews cannot quickly communicate coordinates to flight teams.

The ground crews are in “the most woeful terrains”, said Marcus Dunn, a pilot and director at Farmland Aviation.

“If there is no network, then the fellow on a boda boda (motorcycle), he has to rush off now and go and get a network.”

A plane spraying pesticides flies over a swarm of desert locusts in Nasuulu Conservancy, northern Kenya (Ben Curtis/AP)

Just five planes are currently spraying as Kenyan and other authorities try to stop the locusts from spreading to neighbouring Uganda and South Sudan.

The United Nations has said £57 million is needed immediately to widen such efforts across east Africa.

A fast response is crucial. Experts warn that if left unchecked, the number of locusts could grow by 500 times by June, when drier weather will help bring the outbreak under control.

The finger-length locusts swept into Kenya from Somalia and Ethiopia after unusually heavy rains in recent months, decimating crops in some areas and threatening millions of vulnerable people with a hunger crisis.

Somalia’s agriculture ministry on Sunday called the outbreak a national emergency and major threat to the country’s fragile food security, saying the “uncommonly large” locust swarms are consuming huge amounts of crops.

In swarms the size of major cities, the locusts also have affected parts of Sudan, Djibouti and Eritrea, whose agriculture ministry says both the military and general public have been deployed to combat them.

Desert locusts jump up from the ground and fly away as a cameraman walks past, in Nasuulu Conservancy (Ben Curtis/AP)

Kenya’s agriculture minister has acknowledged that authorities were not prepared for the scope of the infestation this year.

The locusts also are heading toward the breadbasket of Ethiopia, Africa’s second-most populous country, in that nation’s worst outbreak in 25 years.

On Thursday, startled residents of Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, started reported sightings of the insects.

“I was surprised to find the locusts inside my living room,” said one resident, Mathewos Girma, showing a photo on his mobile phone. “It appears it is knocking on each and every one of our doors.”

Until the drier weather in June, more rain across the region will bring fresh vegetation to fuel further waves of locust breeding. One field in Kenya on Saturday appeared to be full of mating bright yellow locusts.

“They are trying to mate and reproduce, so we need more help and because we are racing against time,” said Salat Tutana, the chief agriculture officer in Isiolo county.

Within hours, the locusts can strip a pasture of much of its vegetation.

“That’s a very sad situation, especially for the pastoralists” whose livelihoods rely on their cattle, Mr Tutana said.