Locust Swarms Eat Their Way Through East Africa

JUBA, South Sudan (AP) — The worst locust outbreak that East Africa has seen in 70 years has reached South Sudan, a country where roughly half the population already faces hunger after years of civil war, officials said Tuesday.

Around 2,000 locusts were spotted inside the country, Agriculture Minister Onyoti Adigo said. The locusts have been seen in Eastern Equatoria state near the borders with Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda. All have been affected by the outbreak that has been influenced by the changing climate in the region.

Locusts surround a Kenyan ranger on Feb. 1. (AP photo/Ben Curtis)

The situation in those three countries “remains extremely alarming,” the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said in its latest Locust Watch update Monday. Locusts also have reached Sudan, Eritrea, Tanzania and Uganda.

The sandy soil in South Sudan’s Eastern Equatoria allows the locusts to lay eggs easily, said Meshack Malo, country representative with the FAO.

At this stage “if we are not able to deal with them … it will be a problem,” he said.

South Sudan is even less prepared than other countries in the region for a locust outbreak, and its people more vulnerable. More than 5 million people are severely food insecure, the U.N. humanitarian office said in its latest assessment, and 860,000 children are malnourished.

Five years of civil war shattered South Sudan’s economy, and lingering insecurity since a 2018 peace deal continues to endanger humanitarians trying to distribute aid. Another aid worker was shot and killed last week, the U.N. said Tuesday.

The locusts have traveled across the region in swarms the size of major cities. Experts say the only effective control is aerial spraying with pesticides, but U.N. and local authorities have said more aircraft and pesticides are required. A handful of planes have been active in Kenya and Ethiopia.

Immature locusts that have not yet grown wings, in Somalia on Feb. 5. (AP photo/Ben Curtis)

The U.N. has said $76 million is needed immediately. On Tuesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during a visit to Ethiopia said the United States would donate another $8 million to the effort. That follows an earlier $800,000.

The number of locusts could multiply by as much as 500 times by June, when drier weather begins, experts have said. Until then, the fear is that more rains in coming weeks will bring fresh vegetation to feed a new generation of the voracious insects.

South Sudanese ministers called for a collective regional response to the outbreak that threatens to devastate crops and pastures.

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