Kenya beats back desert locust upsurge for now, but East Africa remains at risk
Q&A with Cyril Ferrand, FAO’s Resilience Team Leader for East Africa
How is the Desert Locust campaign in East Africa going?
At the moment FAO is fighting the second generation of Desert Locusts. We have made significant progress in a number of countries, especially in Kenya, where only two of the 29 counties that were infested in February have Desert Locusts today. In the coming days, that will drop to one county, and within three weeks Kenya should be free of large-scale infestations altogether. That is a success but the threat of possible re-infestation towards the end of the year will call for careful and continued surveillance.
Unfortunately, Ethiopia is still infested with a second breeding generation, and also partly re-infested by swarms from Kenya. Ethiopia is also under threat from new swarms arriving from Yemen. A lot of work has been done in Ethiopia but unfortunately the battle will continue there until the end of the year. In Somalia we are also making progress, despite security issues, but breeding is expected in the north. We expect summer locust breeding in the Sudan and western Eritrea also.
We know we cannot defeat an upsurge of Desert Locusts globally in only a few months. Of course the locust situation in Yemen and Southwest Asia remains a concern — but I have to say when it comes to East Africa, we have made a lot of progress in the entire region, where expertise was very low at the beginning. Some of the affected countries had not seen Desert Locusts for decades – in the case of Kenya it was 70 years. Of course, there is still a need to build up monitoring and response capacity across the region, to be ready if a renewed upsurge occurs.
How extensive have Desert Locust control operations been?
The figures are changing every day because we are doing surveillance and control every day. But from the beginning of January up until the end of June we had controlled nearly 600,000 hectares, which is a really large amount for this region.
We estimate that so far we have killed over 400 billion locusts in the entire region. That is really a lot. That is 400 to 500 billion locusts that were prevented from damaging crops and rangelands.
What are the challenges now with the new swarms?
One challenge is the high mobility of Desert Locusts. We need a very agile operation to follow the swarms and the juvenile locusts. With swarms that can move up to 150 kilometres per day, this requires all the assets, pesticides, planes, helicopters, fuel, plus the teams on the ground doing scouting and surveillance, to be moved accordingly.
The other challenge is that Desert Locusts have been moving to very remote areas, to immense territories where they spread out. In Ethiopia they are scattered across the Somali region, for example — a huge territory that requires capacity on the ground and in the air for surveillance. Ground surveillance is not sufficient. That is why we have hired helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft with long range coverage. So, one of the big challenges is these new locations which are hard to reach and have little infrastructure and few people on the ground.
How do you manage to fight locusts with the impact of COVID-19?
This is another challenge. Training locust scouts, for example, is now harder. Social distance has to be kept and too many people cannot be trained at the same time, so the size of the classes has to be decreased and the frequency of smaller group sessions increased. But still, we have managed to train over 1 000 people.
Fortunately, governments have declared COVID-19 a national priority — that means our ground teams can operate. But with the curfew in Kenya, for example, the number of hours that the teams can operate has been reduced.
Can you walk us through a Desert Locust control operation? What happens on a typical day?
We are concentrating efforts now in Turkana in northern Kenya, where the latest swarms have been located. Typically, the team wakes up at 05:00 hours. At 06:00 hoursc they have a briefing and breakfast together with the helicopter and aircraft pilots and at 06:30hours they are on the tarmac.
Step one is to verify the locations that were spotted and GPS tagged by ground surveillance crews the previous day. Those crews would have also engaged with any residents near the area to inform them of the control activity and provide them with instructions on how to keep themselves or their animals safe. “No go” locations like homes, villages, water bodies, etc. are also mapped for avoidance. In the evening, locusts start roosting or congregating together, so first thing in the morning we send the helicopter to verify if the Desert Locusts are still in those locations. If they are there, we call the spray aircraft — which are on standby, loaded with pesticide – and target those locations, respecting the no go areas and again informing communities.
Simultaneously, we have our other aircraft go on patrol, flying low for three or four hours in search of new swarms. All the pilots have been trained and know how to recognize the locusts when they are roosting on top of the trees. When we spot something, we take a GPS location and then communicate that with the helicopter pilot who does a ground verification of the locusts and their stage of development. It is a tandem operation between people on the ground and people in the air combining surveillance, verification and control. There is a lot of communication. All this data is captured using the our eLocust3 app so that it is fed back to FAO headquarters and informs our ability to monitor, predict and respond to global locust movements. That data stream coming from all the affected countries is critical for our coordination and response.
That would be a typical day for the team. They wake up at 05:00 hours and come back around midday. We have a window of opportunity of about four hours to spray in the morning before the locusts start flying and before the air temperature is too high.
In the afternoons the team goes and speaks to communities, because communication is very important.
We have team members who meet farmers and herders to discuss potential locust damage to their sorghum field or their range land. It is a long day for people on the ground.
What impact have Desert Locusts had on food security and agricultural livelihoods?
FAO and partners were able to prevent the first generation of locusts that emerged in February from causing significant damage to crops in Ethiopia and Kenya. The bread basket areas high potential crops have been spared largely due to the control operations. But regarding the agro-pastoral and pastoral livelihoods in areas where locusts have found good locations for breeding, we have seen damage. That is very clear.
We are still assessing the damage, but we have noticed abnormal poor livestock body condition in areas where Desert Locusts were present. That indicates that grazing was limited in these areas this season and indicates that pastureland was not widely available in areas affected by Desert Locusts, despite good rains. That is a concern as we are now entering the dry season. Normally we would only see poor livestock body condition during the dry season. Now we are seeing it even in the middle of the rainy season, which is really abnormal.
In Turkana County in northern Kenya, we recently saw sorghum crops with around 15 to 20 percent damage or reduction of the yield. Also, it is important to remember that we have had a series of droughts since 2016. The multiple layers of threats that these communities have been facing is a significant concern and a source of acute food insecurity in the region.
We predict that from June to December we could have many more people in the region severely food insecure due to Desert Locusts alone. If we add an additional factor – such as COVID-19 – and the pre-existing caseload of people already food insecure prior to the upsurge — the situation in the region is quite dramatic.