Fight still rages against locust invasion

Two years after the world learned of the worst desert locust infestation that has wreaked havoc in Africa and Asia in many years, countries are still fighting hard to contain the invasion that has threatened food security in zones that were already under stress from drought, flooding and other problems.

In Ethiopia, the agriculture minister Ouma Hussein Oba has confirmed that drones are still in the fields, spraying on trees, crops, grasslands and other areas of potential infestation, to get rid of the locusts that have ravaged the eastern and southern parts of the country, in the worst locust outbreak in 25 years, that the minister declared as a massive invasion.

The locusts even reached as far as the capital, Addis Ababa.

“Using drones to manage the desert locust infestations,” the minister tweeted last week, along with a short video clip of a sprayer drone at work, dusting trees on what looks like a parched land with small hills in the background.

The minister did not state which area the drone was dusting; but the locust army has been devouring crops and pastures in Tigray, Amhara, Oromia, and Somali regional states. Reports say some farms in areas like Amhara in Northern Ethiopia have registered nearly total loss of teff, the Ethiopian staple crop.

And there is more bad news; the heavy rains in the Somali region in the east have provided fertile ground for breeding; more eggs are hatching profusely and another army is growing. More swooped in from Yemen and Somalia. Despite a combination of ground and aerial assault, government is finding it hard to contain the invasion. Well over one million metric tonnes of vegetation have disappeared.

In its latest response, the Ethiopian government roped in the drone solutions provided by Kenyan aviation company, Astral Aerial Aviation, which brought in its sprayer drone to deal with the problem. The company says it deploys its drones early in the morning when the locusts are still roosting, for maximum effect.

Given that the locusts come in multiple large swarms, the dusting team targets one swarm per day.

However, some citizens have expressed their dissatisfaction with the government response, with one Tigray resident slatting the minister grounding a drone the residents were using to protect their crops.

“Yeah you are using drones while here we are fighting locust manually,” the comment said. “Free our drone which is still kept in 4killo since 7months ago just for unknown reasons.”

The drone may have been ordered off the skies because until recently, Ethiopia had no proper laws to regulate drone technology in the country; a reality which may be hampering the crusade against the voracious insects today – because the drones being used carry small payloads, and the areas they are supposed to cover are really vast.

There are larger drones on the market, like the VoloDrone, which is capable of carrying payloads as heavy as 200 kilogrammes. Such heavy duty autonomous aerial vehicles would be useful in stemming the current locust tide.

Drone technology has been used to augment other traditional and unorthodox pest control methods in areas heavily affected by the plague, which include China (where ducks have been unleashed alongside drones and human sprayers to feed on the locusts); East Africa, the Arabian Peninsula and the Indian subcontinent.

The locust army had grown undetected in May 2018 when a cyclone battered the unpopulated desert lands known as Rub’ al Khali in the Arabian Peninsula, leaving ephemeral lakes where the locusts bred and multiplied. Locusts grow exponentially in this kind of climate and ultimately; and another cyclone in October enabled three generations of wildly successful locust breeding in just nine months, increasing the number of insects buzzing over the Arabian desert roughly 8,000-fold, according to reports.

When that part of the world woke up to the danger in June of the same year, it was too late.

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