Ethiopian officials have deployed helicopters to spray new swarms of desert locusts that are eating crops and threatening the country’s food security.
The U.S. Agency for International Development said billions of the pests have descended on East Africa in recent weeks, targeting crops and pastures across a region already facing widespread hunger and humanitarian needs.
In the latest development, huge swarms swept into Ethiopia’s southern Oromia region last week from Kenya and Somalia, displacing thousands of people, officials said.
Ethiopia engaged the swarms by spraying pesticides from the air, using three helicopters leased from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), said Zebdios Salato, the top advisor in the crop protection department at Ethiopia’s Ministry of Agriculture.
Hours after spraying, millions of locusts lay scattered on the ground, dead or dying.
Salato told VOA’s Horn of Africa Service that the helicopters arrived the first week in May from South Africa. He said Ethopia might lease three more if necessary.
“Total eradication will not be possible, but we can scale up the control operation,” he said.
Previously, the government was using five single-engine turboprop aircraft to repeal the locust outbreak in remote and inaccessible areas.
Salato said that with funding from several donors, Ethiopia hopes to limit damage to crops and prevent a food crisis. The county experienced a similar desert locust invasion in 2019 and lost about 1.14 percent of the total harvest, Tamiru Kebede, an official from the ministry of agriculture, told VOA. “This is less than what we had expected,” he said.
But in some cases, aerial spraying is not enough. Huge swarms of locusts, the size of a city, forced more than 15,000 people to flee their homes this month in the Wachile region, said another agriculture official, Mohamed Abaqoda.
These are immature, wingless locusts that get around by hopping, Abaqoda said. “They feed on every green leaf, flood lakes, houses, anywhere and have displaced more than 12 villages in the area,” he said.
“Thousands of bouncy insects swarmed into our village, forcing us to flee,” Bule Dida, 56 and a father of five, said.
The community tried to scare them off by banging on cans and pans, blowing whistles, and honking motorcycle horns. Experts sprayed pesticides from vehicles, but the total ground effort wasn’t enough to stop the pests, Bule said.
The locusts have already destroyed large swaths of food and pasture in the region, but the total damage cannot be determined since new swarms are continuously coming in, Abaqoda said.
Ethiopia is aerial spraying the swarms in three locations: Arba-Minchi in Southern Ethiopia; Jigjiga, in the Somali region and Dire-Dawa in the eastern part of the country.
Senior pathologist Heru Hussein said Ethiopia is using malathion, diazinen and other environmentally friendly pesticides. However, in some areas the sprays are not allowed as they may affect vegetation and plant life.
Experts have described the ongoing desert locust infestation in the Horn as the worst in 25 years. Salato said widespread rainfall in late March created an ideal environment for locust breeding. The situation may get worse when the insects mature and grow wings. The desert locust can fly up to 19 kilometers per hour and cover up to 130 kilometers per day.
Salato expects the formation of new swarms to peak during the wet season of June and July – “but we are working to adequately control them at early stage,” he said.
The FAO warns that starting in July, new swarms from Saudi Arabia could also cross the Red Sea and reach the interior of Sudan, where they could breed and threaten vital crops and pasturelands.
The COVID-19 pandemic has complicated efforts to fight the locusts, mainly by delaying deliveries of pesticides and personal protective equipment in recent weeks, the FAO says.