ROME, Italy, March 4, 2020 (ENS) – The East Africa region now faces a hunger threat from desert locusts, along with climate shocks, conflict and acute food insecurity, top United Nations relief officials are warning, urgently advising that action now will avert a major food crisis later.

The locust upsurge is “a graphic and shocking reminder” of the region’s vulnerability, said a joint statement from Qu Dongyu, director-general of the Food and Agriculture Organization, FAO; Mark Lowcock, UN emergency relief coordinator; and David Beasley, executive director of the World Food Programme.

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Desert locusts are making human life unbearable across East Africa. (Photo courtesy FAO)

“This is a scourge of biblical proportions,” they warned. “Yet as ancient as this scourge is, its scale today is unprecedented in modern times.”

Desert locust monitoring and forecasting are part of FAO’s original mandate. Its Desert Locust Information Service has been in operation for nearly 50 years.

Today, the UN leaders warn that East Africa is facing a major threat from desert locusts.

The FAO is urgently requesting US$138 million to help governments control these devastating pests. They say the window of opportunity to help is still open and the math is clear: pay a little now, or pay a lot more later.

On January 20, the FAO called for $76 million to help combat this pest crisis, but the resources to control the outbreak have been too slow in coming.

Since FAO launched that first appeal to help what was then three affected countries, the locust swarms have moved rapidly across vast distances and the full extent of their massive scale has become clear. Since the FAO’s last plea for action on February 12, swarms have been sighted in Djibouti, Eritrea, South Sudan, Uganda and Tanzania.

Each day, more countries are affected, the UN officials warn. Last week, a swarm crossed into one of Africa’s most food-insecure and fragile countries, South Sudan. Just this week, it was confirmed that one swarm reached the eastern boundaries of the Democratic Republic of the Congo – a country that has not seen a locust incursion since 1944. 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.

As the locusts continue their invasion throughout eastern Africa, and more details emerge about the scale of need in affected areas, the cost of action has already doubled, to $138 million. FAO urgently needs this money to help Governments control these devastating pests, especially in the next four months.

Although the FAO sounded the alarm in January, calling for financial assistance to control the outbreak, resources have been too slow in coming.

Since FAO launched its first appeal to help what was at the time three affected countries, the locust swarms have moved rapidly across vast distances and as of 12 February, have been sighted in Djibouti, Eritrea, South Sudan, Uganda and Tanzania. Each day, more countries are affected.

Last week, a swarm crossed into South Sudan, one of Africa’s most food-insecure and fragile countries. And just this week, a swarm reached the eastern boundaries of the Democratic Republic of the Congo – a country that has not seen a locust incursion since 1944.

The potential impact of locusts on a country that is still grappling with complex conflict, displacement, Ebola and measles outbreaks and food insecurity is “devastating,” the UN officials warned.

As more details emerge on the scale of need in affected areas, the cost of action has shot up to $138 million to support governments in controlling the ravaging pests, especially over the next four months.

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A desert locust , Schistocerca gregaria. Jan. 2013 (Photo by Colin Frankland)

The money would fund activities to combat the locusts before new swarms emerge, provide help for people whose crops or pastures are already affected and protect families and their livelihoods.

Desert locusts have a reproduction cycle of three months. In just a few weeks, as crops begin to sprout, the next generation of locusts will take wing in a renewed frenzy of destructive swarm activity, threatening to devastate East Africa’s most important crop of the year. Today, mature swarms are laying eggs within vast areas of Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia, many of which are already hatching.

“But that doesn’t have to happen,” the UN leaders urged. “The window of opportunity is still open. The time to act is now.”

They maintained that action to control and contain the locusts before the new swarms take flight and farmers crops first break soil is “critical.”

At the same time, FAO needs additional resources to immediately begin boosting the resilience of affected communities so they can better withstand some inevitable shocks.

“Acting now to avert a food crisis is a more humane, effective and cost-efficient approach than responding to the aftermath of disaster,” the officials warned as they welcomed the $33 million international donor response that has been received or committed.

“But the funding gaps are clear, and needs are growing too rapidly. We need to do more,” they urged.

The World Food Programme 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.

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