Africa is facing its first plague of locusts since 1989 as a huge swarm that has devastated Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia sweeps into Uganda.
Border officials sounded the alarm as the insects, which have already decimated food supplies across much of the Horn of Africa, were spotted crossing into the Karamoja border region in the north east of the country.
It comes as the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) warned of an emerging humanitarian crisis last month as the estimated 360 billion insects munch their way through tonnes of much-needed crops. Somalia declared a state of emergency this month due to the loss of vital crops.
The United Nations is to test drones equipped with mapping sensors and atomizers to spray pesticides in a bid to save crops.
Aerial spraying of pesticides is already being carried out in many areas, but experts say the scale of the infestation is beyond local capacity as desert locusts can travel up to 150 km (95 miles) in a day.
Keith Cressman, the FAO’s senior locust swarm forecaster, said specially developed prototypes would be tested that can detect swarms via special sensors and adapt their speed and height accordingly.
He said: ‘Nobody’s ever done this with desert locusts before.’
Officials in Kenya say drones could play an important role given the limited number of aircraft.
‘Every county wants an aircraft, but we only have five at the moment and they can only be in one location at one time,’ said David Mwangi, head of plant protection at Kenya’s ministry of agriculture.
‘We have not used drones before, but I think it’s worth testing them as they could help.’
In Somalia, tackling the problem is made even harder as large areas are under threat, or held by, the al-Qaida-linked al-Shabab extremist group. That makes it difficult or impossible to conduct the aerial spraying of the locusts that experts say is the only effective control.
The United Nations (UN) Secretary General Antonio Guterres on Saturday called for more help from the rest of the world.
He said: ‘The UN has issued an urgent appeal for assistance. I ask the international community to respond with speed and generosity to ensure an effective response and control the infestation while we still have the chance.’
The swarm of desert locusts, which usually live solitary lives until a combination of conditions promotes breeding and leads them to form massive swarms, began in eastern Ethiopia and central Somalia last year before spreading through both countries and travelling down to Kenya.
Kenya and Somalia have both deployed pesticides in a desperate attempt to control locust numbers and kill off juveniles, which are expected to develop into winged adults and cause a second swarm in April this year.
Kenyan authorities have sent planes to spray pesticides over areas in the north of the country while, in Somalia, pesticide workers have been pictured wearing protective suits as they spray the insects.
The FAO says the current invasion is known as an ‘upsurge’ – when an entire region is affected – however, if it gets worse and cannot be contained, over a year or more, it would become what is known as a ‘plague’ of locusts.
There have been six major desert locust plagues in the 1900s, the last of which was in 1987-89. The last major upsurge was in 2005.
The swarm has been declared the worst to hit Kenya for 70 years, and the worst to affect Ethiopia and Somalia for 25 years, and could grow 500 times bigger by June when the next generation hatches this month.
The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations director-general Qu Dongyu called for urgent funding to help it provide security for the region at the end of January, after already using $15.4million of the $76million it had requested to tackle the emerging crisis.
The next generation of desert locusts, a million of which can eat enough food for 35,000 people in just one day, are expected to be ready to swarm in April, which coincides with the planting season.
Speaking at an informal briefing in Rome last month, Ms Dongyu warned: ‘I hope we can work hard day and night so people do not lose their crops. Timing and location is crucial.’
The FAO’s deputy director-general for climate and natural resources, Maria Semedo, warned that countries need to act ‘immediately’ because ‘locusts don’t wait. They will come and they will destroy.
‘We need to tackle the emergency but we need to think about livelihoods and the long-term.’
The organisation estimated that as many as 12 million people are coping with severe acute food insecurity and many rely on agriculture for their survival.
Their locust information service describes the current situation as ‘extremely alarming’ and likely to be further exacerbated by new infestations.
The locust swarms had increased significantly over the past month in across 13 Kenyan counties including Isiolo, Samburu, Wajir, Garissa, Tana River, Marsabit, Laikipia, Mandera, Kitui, Baringo, Meru, Embu and Turkana.
These same counties have experienced devastating droughts and floods in recent years and over three million people there have been facing extreme levels of food insecurity.
The swarms are destroying pasture for livestock, which will likely devastate the upcoming planting season.
In Somalia, tens of thousands of hectares of land have been affected in Somaliland, Puntland and Galmudug (Mudug), as mature swarms hit the Garbahare area near the Kenyan border.
Locusts are also reported to be travelling south to Somalia’s Gedo region leaving a trail of destroyed farms.
Operations are underway in the northeast (Puntland) to control the swarms that continue to move towards the central and southern areas.
Insecurity in some of these parts is hampering efforts to survey and control the infestations.
Oxfam is part of a network of local partner organisations that is monitoring how much further damage the locusts will cause to local food crops.
‘We are making plans that include providing cash assistance to people most-in-need, particularly small-holder farmers and pastoralists, so they are able to buy food and fodder for their livestock,’ said Zigomo.
The UN Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) estimates that Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia need $70million between them to tackle the plague.
Oxfam is calling on donors to fund this response immediately, in order to avoid more people falling hungry and using up whatever assets they have to buy food.