Ethiopia: Worst locust outbreak in 25 years


At the end of a tough farming season, Ethiopian farmer Leila Mohammed was looking ready to harvest her millet crop with a sense of pride. 

As she was drafting plans and calculating profits, she saw gigantic swarms of locusts like a cloud approaching the fields. All her efforts of waving a piece of cloth to beating steel plates to drive the swarm away failed. Within minutes all the hard labor of months and money she had invested to grow crops were ruined by little monsters.

Residing in Somali province, 50 kilometers (31 miles), north of the regional capital Jijjiga, Mohammed with his six children is looking at a bleak future and starving days ahead.

Ethiopia: Worst locust outbreak in 25 years

“They have destroyed my crop. I do not know what to do. We have lost food and battle against desert locusts,” she told Anadolu Agency.

She recalls that it was like a giant tornado flying high in the sky. Then they lost heights, starting descending and devastated crops.

The region has seen a second such attack from insects last weekend during the current farming season.

“Just last week, this area was sprayed with chemicals and the swarms got paralyzed. But look at them, they have come again to destroy whatever little had been left,” said Siba Aden Mohammed, a local official serving at Awbare district of Fafen zone.

While moving around, telling devastation is visible. Farms, where crops like millet, wheat, and chickpea were standing tall and awaiting harvest are empty, with farmers cursing their luck in desperation.

A vast blanket of dark brown winged insects has covered huge tracts of farmlands. As farmers try to remove them, they fly but soon return to sap the last grain of crop left in the field.

According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), since January, swarms of desert locusts have damaged over 200,000 hectares of cropland in Ethiopia affecting the food security of millions of people.

Aerial spray

Feared throughout history, locusts look like ordinary grasshoppers with big hind legs, white and blue limbs. They form enormous swarms that spread across regions, devouring crops, and leaving serious agricultural damage in their wake. Farmers say, while sitting in the field, they can feel the force of their push.

“The new swarms have destroyed eight Kebeles [farmers’ localities]. All standing crops have been lost entire standing at six localities of Jabsa, Shil Asley, Aladere, Wogera Adle, Keleroek, and Gez Obele,” said Siba.

Early morning, when locusts are most active, an aircraft had dropped insecticides to kill them. But farmers say, it had little effect on the swarm.

“It did not seem to affect this time unlike a week ago when the aerial spray had killed the locusts. The government is trying its best, sending aircraft, sprays, and experts. But it looks nothing is working,” he said.

Driving along with the croplands on a paved road, one can see farmers burning the grass to create smoke, to signal aircraft to spray chemicals at these places.

Farmers were expecting a good yield this year. “If not for the locusts, the crops were in very good condition and they were ripening soon to be harvested,” added Siba.

Speaking to Anadolu Agency, Abdi Aden Abdi, director of Crop Production and Protection Department in Somali province said so far 36 districts, out of 93 districts have been affected by locusts.

“We have employed six helicopters and a couple of fixed-wing aircraft to spray insecticides. But new swarms are showing up from neighboring Somaliland, as well as from other regions in Ethiopia to devastate more and more farmlands," he said.

Assessing damage

Busy with attempts to save crops from insects, Abdi said, they have not yet assessed crop loss and its cascading effects on food security and hunger.

“Our priority right now in getting rid of the locusts and saving crops that have not been touched so far from the invasion,” he said when asked about the assessment and effects of crop destruction on the lives of people.

The Somali region is Ethiopia’s second-largest regional state in terms of geography after the Oromia regional state, which is the largest and also most populous.

According to Abdi, a committee of experts including central and state officials as well as representatives of FAO would soon to assess the damage.

Slows pace of the economy

Experts fear that locust swarm will hit the country’s GDP figures immensely. Expecting a good agriculture yield, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed had last month projected 6.1% growth for the current financial year.

Since agriculture contributes to a lion’s share in the GDP, its slowing down is expecting to have cascading effects on overall economic progress.

Agriculture experts say, the swarms originating in Yemen are affecting the East Africa region. According to the FAO, locust swarms can range from less than one square km to more than 1,000 sq km.

Each square kilometer of a swarm can have from 40 million-80 million locusts, says an FAO official.

An adult desert locust consumes food equaling roughly to its weight -- about two grams every day. That means that even a small swarm of insects will eat food consumed by six elephants, 20 camels, or 35,000 people every day, according to the FAO official.

Despite putting up all efforts, agriculture officials said the problem is far from over. Abdi said the scary fact is that new swarms are mating and laying eggs, producing ground for new swarms./ aa