Uganda faces food shortage as coronavirus disrupts locust fight

Desert locusts swarm into Uganda from neighbouring Kenya, threatening food security and livelihoods.

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A child chasing away the locusts in Ongino sub-county in Kumi distrcit [Godfrey Ojore/Al Jazeera]

Kampala, Uganda – Farmers in Uganda are bracing for a fresh onslaught of desert locusts after two swarms entered the country from neighbouring Kenya last week, threatening to destroy crops and intensify hunger amid the struggle to contain the coronavirus pandemic.

Countries across East Africa are battling the worst locust outbreak in decades, with the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) warning on Wednesday that the situation remained “extremely alarming” as hopper bands and an increasing number of new swarms form in parts of the region.

“This represents an unprecedented threat to food security and livelihoods because it coincides with the beginning of the long rains and the planting season,” it said on Wednesday.

In Uganda, the latest insect invasion came through the eastern border district of Amudat on April 3, officials said. 

Unlike previous swarms of mature, less ravaging insects that crossed into the country in February, the new arrivals comprises insects at a “growth stage” that have the “potential to destroy vegetation wherever they go”, said Vincent Ssempijja, Uganda’s agriculture minister.

“The nymphs and young locust have high affinity for food. This may pose an imminent danger to food security and livelihoods,” he added.

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People of Ongino sub-county in Kumi district chasing away the locusts from their gardens [Godfrey Ojore/Al Jazeera]

Agnes Kirabo, executive director of the Food Rights Alliance, said “this new exodus of swarms is more destructive and a big threat” to food security.

“Farmers have no other way of deriving a livelihood except their farms,” she added. “To farmers, it’s not a loss of food but a loss of life. This is very tragic and a big threat to an already less resilient agriculture sector and food system.”

Farming communities and semi-nomadic herders in the east and the semi-arid northeast Karamoja region, often described as Uganda’s poorest and most marginalised region, are particularly at risk, with the crisis exacerbated by the threat of the coronavirus pandemic.

“At Karamojong, we have entered into cultivation season. The locust nymphs have emerged now to do their business of destruction,” said Loupa Pius, project officer at Dynamic Agropastoralist Development Organisation in Karamoja.

“The second wave of locusts will be another high-level disaster because the crops that have been planted in Karamoja are in danger,” he added, calling the government to provide food supplies to the region’s vulnerable population amid the pandemic.

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Locusts fleeing from a tree in Osudan village in Katakwi district as the army sprayed them [Godfrey Ojore/Al Jazeera]

The fight against the ravaging pests has been complicated by flight bans imposed to slow the spread of COVID-19, the highly infectious respiratory disease caused by the new coronavirus.

The restrictions have significantly delayed deliveries of pesticides in countries across the region.

Ssempijja said Uganda has deployed more than 2,000 military troops to carry out control operations but the lack of certain pesticides  “hinders the use of aircraft which are much more efficient than ground operations”.

“Due to COVID-19 control measures in place in the country right now, there are skeletal staff supporting the field control activities,” he added.

Despite the new wave of locust swarms, the government urged farmers to start planting to ensure food security.

“Farming communities in the affected communities are however encouraged to take advantage of the recent rains and plant crops to avert a possible food crisis,” Ssempijja said.

However, Loupa said: “People should be advised to halt planting of crops to observe the direction and the stage of desert locust outbreak.”

“Otherwise, if this is not taken into action, the usual food insecurity will override the region, including capable people who can usually easily find their own food without aid. This time round, they are likely to ask for it because the situation has been hit by COVID-19.”

The United Nations has warned the locust swarms could increase 500 times by June, posing a major threat to millions of people in an already vulnerable region.

In May, the eggs will hatch into hopper bands that will form new swarms in late June and July, which coincides with the start of the harvest, according to FAO.

“Soon this will not be an issue of disaster and emergence but an issue of systemic and institutional planning,” Kirabo said.

“A semi-permanent programme against locusts needs to be established,” she said.

For his part, Ssempijja said there was “an urgent need to engage the government of Kenya on the possibility of joint operations for ground spraying to ensure that the newly hatched hoppers do not reach maturity and swarm into Uganda.”

Source: Al Jazeera