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Locust swarms could cause food insecurity

 

On Feb.09, the much anticipated swarms of desert locusts invaded Uganda from neighbouring Kenya through the northeastern district of Amudat. The government and its development partners including the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) have since been battling the destructive insects which are now moving southwards. Experts on the ground say the locusts’ fast movement is being aided by strong winds in the north but also the local people’s noise which they are using to unsettle the insects. But other experts say the response from the government has been somewhat lackluster and haphazard. The team that is spraying the locusts from the ground say the pumps are ineffective while the stocks of pesticides are fast running out. Meanwhile,the more effective aircraft are yet to be procured by the government. Besides Karamoja in the Northeast, the locusts have so far been sighted in 17 districts in the sub-regions of Teso, Lango, Acholi and West Nile. Most of the locusts swarming southwards are said to be less destructive given their advanced age but they are laying millions of eggs along their migratory path. The Independent’s Ronald Musoke sought the expert views of Dr. Antonio Querido, the FAO Country Representative in Uganda on what Ugandans can expect in the coming months.

Now that the locusts have made their way into Uganda; how might they behave over the next few weeks?

In the present situation, as long as Kenya has not brought the infestation under control, swarms may continue to arrive in Uganda. At the moment, the swarms that have made their way into Uganda are mature and are laying eggs. They have so far spread to several districts in search of suitable areas for laying eggs. In some places where they have been, they have laid eggs. In one round of laying eggs, the female Desert Locust lays up to 80 eggs, three times in its lifetime. This means that over its lifetime, one female Desert Locust lays up to 300 eggs. The eggs laid by the Desert Locusts hatch in 14 days. The nymphs and young Desert Locusts (mainly pink in colour) that will come after the first hatching are the most dangerous since they have a high need for food. It is very important that Uganda keeps an active surveillance system especially in areas where these adult swarms have been. Effective surveillance will guide the country to deploy relevant control measures such as aerial spraying. FAO is currently working with the DLCO (Desert Locust Control Organization for Eastern Africa) to enhance surveillance of the Desert Locust situation in Uganda and the Horn of Africa.

Recent forecasts by the Uganda National Meteorological Authority point to an onset of the rain season (March-June). What is most likely to happen when the rains finally arrive?

Rain is a trigger and an enabler for Desert Locust reproduction. Given the right conditions, a locust population can increase 20 fold every three months. If the swarms present in Uganda find suitable areas for laying eggs, these will hatch into hoppers in about 14 days or months to come depending on how favourable the climatic conditions are. Hopper bands are the most destructive stage of the Desert Locust cycle as they feed on anything green.  For Uganda, it is critical that areas where female Desert Locusts are suspected to have laid eggs be mapped and constantly monitored, and control measures put in place to kill the nymphs as soon as they hatch. The increase in the population of the Desert Locusts in Uganda will largely depend on their ability to find a suitable place for laying and hatching of their eggs. At the moment, the ecological conditions in Karamoja are not favourable for breeding.

The current interventions in Uganda notwithstanding, what is the possibility that the locusts will move beyond the areas where they are at the moment?

The on-going control operations are targeting adult hoppers. Importantly is the fact that Desert Locust movement is largely determined by the wind direction. Current wind direction is projected towards the North East of the Horn of Africa, towards Sudan. However, locusts continue laying eggs in Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia. The population of locusts in the region is expected to increase at the onset of rains.

Finally, what exactly is at stake now that the locusts are in Uganda?

Swarms present in Uganda today are not destructive in nature. They tend to settle or roost on top of trees and feed on leaves as they search for a suitable environment for laying eggs. With the main planting season cycle for most parts of Uganda coming up in March, there is need to manage the hoppers before they start flying. Otherwise, in a few weeks’ time, there will be a lot of crops sprouting across the country. If the locust hoppers are not controlled at the breeding (stage), they will quickly mature into adult hoppers, a stage that feeds unselectively on anything green. Locusts destroy food crops and livestock forage. The swarms are uncommonly large and can consume huge amounts of crops and forage. This could severely exacerbate the food security situation in the Karamoja and Teso sub-regions.

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