A small group of desert locusts have entered Congo, marking the first sighting of the voracious insects in the Central African country since 1944.
The UN Food and Agriculture Agency confirmed this on Tuesday as they warned of a “major hunger threat” in East Africa from the flying pests.
Kenya, Somalia and Uganda have been battling the swarms in the worst locust outbreak that parts of East Africa have seen in 70 years.
One swarm measured 60 kilometres long by 40 kilometres wide in Kenya’s northeast, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development said in a statement.
The UN said swarms are also in Djibouti, Eritrea and Tanzania and recently reached South Sudan, a country where half the population already faces hunger after years of civil war.
The swarms of locusts were described as “a scourge of biblical proportions” and “a graphic and shocking reminder of this region’s vulnerability,” according to UN officials Qu Dongyu, Mark Lowcock, and David Beasley.
The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) said mature locusts, carried in part by the wind, arrived on the western shore of Lake Albert in eastern Congo on Friday near the town of Bunia.
The country has not seen locusts for 75 years, FAO said.
“Needless to say the potential impact of locusts on a country still grappling with complex conflict, Ebola and measles outbreaks, high levels of displacement, and chronic food insecurity would be devastating,” the UN officials said in the joint statement.
Locust swarms can reach the size of major cities and can destroy crops and devastate pasture for animals.
Experts have warned that the outbreak is affecting millions of already vulnerable people across the region.
On Tuesday, Uganda’s government said it was trying to contain a large swarm and will need more resources to control the infestation that has spread to over 20 districts in the north.
Soldiers have battled swarms using hand-held spray pumps, while experts have said aerial spraying is the only effective control.
The UN recently raised its aid appeal from $76 million to $138 million, and said the need for more help is urgent.
“This funding will ensure that activities to control the locusts can take place before new swarms emerge,” the UN officials said, noting that to date only $33 million have been received or committed.
Experts have warned that the number of locusts if unchecked could grow 500 times by June, when drier weather is expected in the region.
“(The) World Food Program has estimated the cost of responding to the impact of locusts on food security alone to be at least 15 times higher than the cost of preventing the spread now,” the UN officials said in the statement.
A changing climate has contributed to this outbreak as a warming Indian Ocean means more powerful tropical cyclones will hit the region.
A cyclone late last year in Somalia brought heavy rains that fed fresh vegetation to fuel the locusts that were carried in by the wind from the Arabian Peninsula.
Desert locusts have a reproduction cycle of three months, the UN officials said, and mature swarms are laying eggs in vast areas of Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia.
“In just a few weeks, the next generation of the pests will transition from their juvenile stage and take wing in a renewed frenzy of destructive swarm activity,” the joint statement said.
This is a time when farmers’ crops begin to sprout, which could devastate East Africa’s most important crop of the year.
“But that doesn’t have to happen,” the UN said.
“The window of opportunity is still open. The time to act is now.”
This is the most serious outbreak of desert locusts in 25 years and as it continues to spread across east Africa, it poses an unprecedented threat to food security in some of the world’s most vulnerable countries.
© AAP 2020