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Concerns of calamity raised as locusts swarm eastern Africa

Scenes reminiscent of biblical plagues are unfolding in Eastern Africa, as millions of desert locusts swarm the region in the worst infestation in 70 years.

Men fend off a swarm of desert locusts in Samburu, Kenya,, Jan. 17, 2020. Local Catholic priests and villagers say the hatching insects mean new and locally bred swarms, something that must be avoided.(CNS photo/Njeri Mwangi, Reuters)

NAIROBI, Kenya (CWR) – Scenes like those in the book of Exodus are unfolding in Eastern Africa, as millions of desert locusts swarm the region, in the worst infestation in 70 years.

The calamity is becoming a concern of the Catholic bishops in the region, who fear the infestation is adding a burden to the people who are struggling with the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

“The locust plague is a concern for everyone,” said Bishop Giorgio Bertin, apostolic administrator of Mogadishu and the rest of Somalia, one of the countries affected by the pests.

The region’s locust infestation emerged around the time the first cases of COVID-19 were being discovered in China, but now the global focus has gradually shifted to the pandemic. This has triggered concerns among some church officials that existing disasters such as flooding, droughts, and the locusts may not get the required attention.

With lockdowns, curfews, and quarantines, the pesticides needed to fight the locusts are not readily available or do not arrive on time, according to church officials. The measures have also limited the time for interventions as people rush to beat curfews.

Agencies warned in April that the region should brace itself for a new wave that is 400 times bigger than the first one. In January and February the insects laid eggs, which began to hatch in March following favorable weather conditions. They later came together in swarms and started eating vegetation.

In four months they have gobbled and destroyed thousands of hectares of cropland and animal pasture, leaving thousands of farmers and herders desperate. At stake, according to experts and church agencies is the food security for thousands of people.

“The impact of the infestation on food security and livelihood of rural population in the region is of great concern to us,” said Martin Schomburg, Malteser’s international director in Kenya.

The worldwide relief agency of the Sovereign Order of Malta has responded to the massive infestation of locusts, with some of the swarms are covering areas as wide as 250 kilometers square.

“The communities we work with in Marsabit district (in Kenya) are directly affected,” said Schomburg, “and our priority is to help compensate for their losses and enable them recover from losses.”

According to FAO, the desert locust is considered the most dangerous of all migratory pests across the world. The organization says it threatens people livelihoods, food security, the environment and economic development.

An adult desert locust can consume roughly its own weight or two grams per day of green matter. A one-kilometer-square desert locust swarm contains about million insects. The swarm eats the same amount as 35,000 people per day, or 20 camels, or six elephants. The insects move with the wind and can travel as far as 150 kilometers per day.

At the moment, an estimated 20 million people in the region are food insecure, according to Food Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the United Nations. Some other countries in the region are still in conflict or are recovering from conflict or damages sustained from floods and droughts.

The locusts were first noticed in eastern Africa in December, although some reports suggest they may have arrived in the region much earlier. By May, they had spread to eight countries, including Kenya, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Uganda, Tanzania, Somalia, and South Sudan.

In Kenya and several other countries such large-scale infestation was last seen about seven decades ago. The first arrival of the insects were reported in Ethiopia and Somalia in December. The swarms had crossed from the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden region, and settled in Ethiopia and Somalia.

By late December, some of the swarms had made a landfall in Wajir County, in the former North Eastern Province of Kenya, west of Somalia. Around the same time, another swarm also entered the country from Ethiopia. In about a month, the swarms were also seen in Tanzania and Uganda.

By February, the locusts spread to South Sudan (the world’s youngest nation), where millions are facing hunger, partly due to climate change and prolonged conflict. Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) said an estimated 2000 adult locusts entered the country through Uganda.

With arrival in South Sudan, Fr. James Oyet Latansio, the general secretary of the South Sudan Council of Churches, said the people felt the insects were a new burden even before the country could solve its political issues related to the formation of the new Transitional Government of National Unity. Ambushes and insecurity from armed groups have been preventing interventions and aid from reaching the people.

“We just have to turn around saying, ‘where shall my help come from, if not from the lord, who made heaven and earth’,” said Latansio.

An estimated six million South Sudanese people face severe food insecurity and are in need of humanitarian aid, according to humanitarian agencies.

With the growing infestation, some Catholic bishops in the region have called on government help and international efforts to fight the deadly insects.

Archbishop Martin Kivuva of the Catholic archdiocese of Mombasa in March raised concerns that the Kenyan government, despite timely and adequate warnings by experts, failed to put in place measures to minimize the impact of the locust invasion in Kenya.

“The lethargic and seemingly uncoordinated response has resulted in the situation where the locusts are spreading into more counties and laying eggs that will in a short while hatch into even bigger swarms,” said Kivuva, who leads Kenyan religious leaders grouped under the National Dialogue Group (DNG).

“This must not continue, and we call upon the Ministry of Agriculture to urgently put in place a campaign to educate Kenyans on measures they can adopt to eradicate the locusts.”

According to scientists, while the insects are called desert locusts they best thrive after heavy rainfall, which results in good vegetation in deserts and arid areas.

Since last year, eastern Africa has experienced heavy rainfall linked to a condition known as Indian Ocean Dipole. IOD refers to the warming of the sea surface resulting in increased rainfall.

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About Fredrick Nzwili 26 Articles
Fredrick Nzwili is journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya.


  1. Those poor people.
    If there was some way to catch the critters in nets or fans & dry & process them, it might make a protein supplement for chicken feed. Some small gain from all the loss.

  2. The article is very informative and raises awareness on a subject I knew nothing of. Like the text suggests, this is a massive problem that is being overshadowed by the covid19 pandemic. I would like to know how we can help or fund aid for these people and ensure that the help is not intercepted by am ushers?

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