Mary Chepokughuo has lived in Amudat District for more than 30 years but had never heard of locusts. The locusts settled a few hundred metres from her home in Komoret last evening.
The widowed mother of five walks towards the site where the Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF) is spraying the locusts.
She looks at their size and immediately concludes that they will eat her crops.
“I have never seen these things (locusts) but I know they are bad because they look like they will eat the vegetables and grass. The government people came and told us something is coming, some visitors, but they did not tell us that this thing (locusts) was coming,” she says.
Her situation highlights the laxity of district and government officials in sensitising the population about desert locusts even as spraying began yesterday in Komoret, Amudat District.
While the UPDF used hand-held spray pumps to fight the insects in shrubs, bushes and undergrowth, the machines proved ineffective in targeting the majority locusts that were perched high up on trees.
Chemusta Abdala Sabila, the Amudat District law enforcement officer, said while the army has tried to spray what is on the ground, more effort is needed.
“These things (locusts) did not find a fertile place in Nakasepan, so they came to the swamp here (Komoret) to rest, eat, and lay eggs. The situation now needs a helicopter to support the army to spray the tree tops. There is need to have involved the extension workers of the district from day one. But, the funding to fight the locusts has been limited to the Ministry of Defence,” he says.
“There should be joint effort between the soldiers and extension workers. If we are not careful, this mechanism of spraying on trees and under them will not be helpful,” he adds.
The much touted spraying helicopters and drones were no where in sight as they had not yet been procured. However, Mr Aggrey Bagiire, the State Minister for Agriculture, says government is doing everything possible to bring them on board.
“The equipment which will spray the top of the trees will land anytime soon in this region. Also, we expect to get some specialised spray pumps which can shoot (pesticides) to about 20 to 30 feet. They are also bringing in vehicle mounted sprayers to handle the long distances. It is unfortunate that the locusts came a bit earlier than we expected them, but nonetheless we are sufficiently prepared,” he said.
Maj Gen Samuel Kavuma, the deputy commander of the Land Forces who was present during the spraying exercise assured the nation that the UPDF had been trained to fight the locusts.
“We are equipped, so anytime we get information that the creatures have landed, we shall deploy. The soldiers who are here today drove from Soroti throughout the night to be here on time. We take today as a successful day because we started killing from 7am. Of course, we are not going to finish them,” he said.
“The area they have covered is about eight square miles and our capacity is limited. But, the government is organising to have those aerial assets to deal with those which are flying and seated on trees. Some will definitely survive, but we shall catch up with them somewhere.”
The fumigation unit of the UPDF came to the rescue with a fogging machine in which the pesticide is mixed with diesel. The mixture then passes through a combustion machine and them is emitted as smoke.
The general consensus here is that while the soldiers did a commendable effort, the majority of the locusts were not sprayed simply because they were beyond the reach of the nasals of the hand held pumps.
A government statement yesterday indicated that the locusts had spread to seven districts in Karamoja and Teso sub-regions but no damage had been reported in the affected areas since the invasion on Sunday.
Another swarm from Kenya was reportedly heading towards Amudat from Kenya yesterday afternoon, according to a government press statement released yesterday.
“Spraying of the swarm of desert locusts which invaded Nakapiripirit District on Wednesday evening started yesterday morning. The atmosphere conditions were cold and chilly, making it difficult for the locusts to fly away from the spray teams,” the statement reads in part.
Government also said spraying of the swarm which landed in Amudat District yesterday evening did not take place because the temperatures were high causing the locusts to fly away as the spray teams approached.
“The team plans to spray from 7.30pm in the evening today when the locust are not able to see well and fly off,” government revealed in the press report.
Expert explains why locusts are hard to fight
The current locust invasion is likely to continue or even get worse unless certain measures are taken, a specialist has warned.
Dr John Bahana, an expert entomologist and adviser to the Ministry of Agriculture on locusts, yesterday explained that measures such as tackling the pests from their breeding grounds needed to be considered to end the invasion.
He revealed that various locust control organisations were killing the pests from their breeding grounds to stop them from migrating to other countries.
Dr Bahana said climate change and war are partly responsible for the locust invasion that bred in the Sahara desert stretch from the Horn of Africa across to Mauritania.
“The ongoing war in Yemen and Somalia could not allow monitoring and control activities causing the pests to breed into large adults,” he explained.
He also explained that heavy rain in the desert areas has led to abundant vegetation, a conducive environment for the locusts to breed.
According to the expert, the locusts, which have invaded Uganda, migrated from the Red Sea coast and when they reached Somalia, they settled and bred enormously.
Dr Bahana said locusts eat food equivalent to their body weight and that a swarm of about 50 million insects can eat 10 tonnes of vegetation (crops and pastures) in a day.
He added that the most destructive stage of locusts is the hoppers; young locusts, which are red-pink in colour.
“Besides failing to find a conducive environment, the locusts which have invaded Uganda are strugglers (aging), a reason they are not destructive,” the expert noted.
He, however, warned that the country is not yet safe because the locust eggs in breeding grounds in Kenya and Somalia are likely to hatch in a few weeks.
“Locusts attacking Uganda are coming from Kenya. They have laid eggs in Turkana (Kenya) and soon they will be hatching and spreading to Uganda,” Dr Bahana warned.
To mitigate the invasion, the expert has called for an inter-government action towards spraying the pests from the breeding grounds.
He has also cautioned the public against eating the locusts that have been sprayed saying the chemicals used are harmful to human health.
According to Dr Bahana, locusts have very hard bodies and are not enjoyable like the usual grasshoppers (nsenene).
Breeding. Dr Bahana said there are three types of locusts, but the most dangerous one is the desert locust. The desert locust eggs hatch after three weeks. The female locust lays its eggs in sandy soil and lay up to 500 eggs.
“When the eggs hatch into hoppers they are in a solitary stage. Within two weeks, they will have grown into a gregarious stage for them to start collectively and form a swarm. A mature locust lives up to six weeks,” he said.
Cost of fighting locusts. The Uganda government released up to Shs22b to fight the locusts.However, a bigger portion of this money was used to pay subscription debt to the regional locust control organisation.
“The money allocated to fight locusts is nothing compared to the task ahead. Hiring an aircraft to spray locusts costs between $1,000 and $2,000 per hour. There are other costs for vehicles to move personnel, vehicle mounted sprayers, protective clothes, insecticide among others,” he explained.
Dr Bahana said between 2013 and 2015, Morocco, Egypt and Algeria spent about $2.5b (about Shs10 trillion) to fight the locust invasion.
Controlling locusts. “The best way to kill the locusts is at the hopper stage. At this stage they are not flying, they are moving in hopper bands on the ground and any insecticide can kill them,” Dr Bahana said.
When they have grown to the gregarious stage they need a high concentrated insecticide.
Compiled by Tonny Abet & Henry Lubega