By Dominic Kirui
MAHIGA-MERU, Kenya, March 23 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) — After desert locusts invaded her farm in central Kenya, Mary Muthoni, 61, ran around her maize fields shouting and banging on an old iron sheet in a desperate attempt to drive them away.
"They came here yesterday evening and sat on top of these trees as though to rest there for the night," said the mother of seven, who lives in Mahiga-Meru village in Laikipia County.
"This morning, they decided to come down on my maize farm and started eating it, destroying the maize in the cobs and also the leaves," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation last month.
The locusts crossed into Kenya from Somalia and Ethiopia at the end of 2019 and have so far infested 26 Kenyan counties.
As the eggs they have laid hatch, food experts have warned a second wave of young locusts will further destroy crops and vegetation, intensifying hunger and environmental damage.
More than 3 million people already face serious shortages of food in Kenya's semi-arid areas due to alternating bouts of drought and flooding, according to the United Nations.
In a March update, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said the locust situation remained "extremely alarming in the Horn of Africa," specifically in Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia where widespread breeding was in progress.
New swarms were starting to form, "representing an unprecedented threat to food security and livelihoods at the beginning of the upcoming cropping season", the agency added.
Scientists say the appearance of the desert locusts may have been exacerbated by global warming and its impacts.
Hotter seas have brought more cyclones to the Indian Ocean, causing heavy downpours along the Arabian peninsula and in the Horn of Africa, creating ideal conditions for locusts to breed.
Kenya experienced high rainfall in the last quarter of 2019, together with strong winds, which supported the locusts' multiplication and spread, said William Marwanga, associate director for livelihoods and resilience at World Vision Kenya.
Officials also fear the locust invasions will do more harm to ecosystems already under stress from droughts and floods made worse by climate change.
"We are going to lose a lot of vegetation and our livelihood," said David Narokwe, disaster management officer for Laisamis sub-county in northern Kenya.
He warned especially of the consequences for local livestock herders, who will struggle to find enough fodder for their animals as it is devoured by locusts, despite sufficient rains.
Newly hatched locusts feed on crops, shrubs and pasture before they can fly, decimating huge patches of land.
The Kenyan government and its international partners, including the FAO, are working to control the locusts, both on the ground and from the air.
The FAO this month provided three more planes to assist with aerial spraying of pesticides.
But with locusts feeding near villages and farms, it can be hard to use chemicals safely, while the areas affected are vast.
Problems like this mean residents in many parts of the country have been fighting the swarms with little direct help.
Some are chasing the insects away by screaming, hitting old pots, banging metal and shaking bells. Others are using tree branches and lighting fires to smoke them out.
"We have been taking turns around the village, assisting each other when (the locusts) settle," said Susan Wambugu, another resident of Mahiga-Meru.
"You also notice that they are competing with our sheep and goats for grass. This is just a satanic thing!" she exclaimed.
At Tirgamo village in Laisamis sub-county, Korowa Buliar, a 28-year-old father of two, said his animals had been searching in vain for grass on which to graze that morning.
"If (the locusts) eat everything like this, then the goats and sheep will die and I was planning to use them as dowry to marry my second wife," he said.
Disaster official Narokwe said the government lacked resources to combat the fresh menace, an indication that the locust invasion may cause more havoc than anticipated.
There were too many locusts for the county authorities to destroy on their own, he said, adding support would be needed from the national government and aid agencies.
World Vision's Marwanga, based in Nairobi, said the government needed to intensify and scale up a coordinated response to the locust crisis at national and county levels.
That should include identifying the proportion of farmland infested by the desert locusts and their impacts on crops, livestock-keeping and natural resources, as well as guidance on how to curb the threat and recover from the invasions, he said.
Farmers have been advised to prepare for expected crop losses in the coming three months from the locust swarms and new hopper bands in affected areas — which could worsen hunger.
Marwanga recommended building up household food reserves, storing fodder and hay for animals, and monitoring locust band formations so as to best time planting.
The government, for its part, should earmark funding and staff to respond to food shortages and expand social welfare schemes such as the Hunger Safety Net Programme, he added.
Further north in Marsabit County, the original yellow flying locusts have passed through, but the young nymphs hatched from the eggs they laid have started banding and hopping, decimating crops and pasture on their way.
Hassan Charfi, the county's deputy director for agriculture, said the region should brace for the new homebred locusts that will undergo all four stages of their life cycle there and threaten the crops local farmers were hoping to plant soon.
(Reporting by Dominic Kirui; editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)