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Desert locusts swarm over a tree in Kipsing, Kenya, on March 31.The Canadian Press

As a second generation of desert locusts expands into massive swarms in East Africa, there are growing fears that the next wave could jeopardize a crucial harvest in June and July in a region already suffering from widespread hunger and the COVID-19 pandemic.

The first generation of locusts invaded East Africa at the end of 2019, causing devastation across several countries in January and February. They bred, and a second generation has now hatched and begun aggressively spreading, while a third wave is expected in June and July.

Each generation of locusts can produce swarms up to 20 times bigger than the previous one. This means the current second generation will contain trillions, potentially destroying up to 5 million square kilometres of farmland.

A single locust can travel 150 kilometres in a day, eating its own weight in maize and other crops. A small swarm of 40 to 80 million can cover a square kilometre, consuming as much food as 35,000 people in a day.

Larger swarms of billions of locusts have already covered hundreds of square kilometres in Kenya, consuming as much food as 90 million people.

“The current situation in East Africa remains extremely alarming as more swarms form and mature in northern and central Kenya and southern Ethiopia,” the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) warned in its latest assessment this week.

The locusts have also inflicted damage in Somalia, Uganda and South Sudan. In some East African countries, it has been the worst locust outbreak in 70 years. Because swarms like these have not been seen in decades, some governments lack the experience and expertise to tackle the crisis fully.

The FAO appealed in January for US$70-million to fight the locusts, then later increased it to US$153-million. It expects to increase the appeal again to a new target of more than US$200-million.

Heavy rains and flooding in late March have boosted the breeding and hatching of the second generation of locusts, the FAO says.

“The risk is that they will form new locusts in June and July, which would coincide with the harvest season, which would pose a real risk to food production in the region,” Dominique Burgeon, the FAO director of emergencies, said in a briefing on Wednesday for the U.S.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

There is a danger that the locust swarms could invade Sudan and even spread as far as West Africa, Pakistan and India, he said. “We need to remain very vigilant.”

Food security experts at CSIS describe the locust eruption as a “crisis within a crisis” since it is occurring at a time of growing hunger and a global pandemic.

More than 20 million people in East Africa already face severe food insecurity and hunger, according to UN estimates. The pandemic is making this worse, restricting the movements of farmers and interrupting the supply of pesticides for aerial spraying against the locust swarms.

Stephanie Hanson, senior vice-president of One Acre Fund, which helps small farmers in six African countries, told the CSIS briefing that the pandemic has led to curfews and other restrictions that reduce the income of many farmers by hindering their ability to sell food in local markets.

Overnight curfews can also pose a problem for aerial spraying operations against the locusts, she said. She cited the example of pilots who need to arrive at airports before Kenya’s nightly curfew is lifted at dawn. Officially they can be granted permits to travel during the curfew, but they can be difficult to obtain, which can slow the aerial response to a locust emergency.

Because of the requirement to work remotely, “governments are overwhelmed right now,” Ms. Hanson said.

The African Development Bank, which is supporting the campaign against the locust swarms, has warned that the locusts could have a catastrophic effect on farmers.

“It appears that those who escape COVID-19 will soon face LOCUST-19,”said the bank’s president, Akinwumi Adesina, said in a statement this week.

“In East Africa alone, the number of hungry people could jump to 30 million people.”

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