More drones for the locust fight in Ethiopia

Reeling from the conflict between government forces and fighters from the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), people from Ethiopia’s Tigray region face a greater danger of famine – induced by the locust plague that just refuses to go away.

The situation has not been helped by the recent heavy rains from Cyclone Gati, which battered Ethiopia’s eastern neighbour Somalia from the 17th until the 21st of November this year, which will offer more breeding ground for the locusts that have been camped in east Africa for more than a year now.

The deteriorating situation has sparked the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation personnel in the region to call for more reinforcements, and got from Israeli, which has had its own nasty but successful bout against a locust invasion before. Having waged a successful battle against an army of locusts in 2013, Israel’s agriculture ministry has wadded into the East African pest war – that has seen the pesky pests decimating an estimated 3million hectares worth of plant life – with 27 surveillance drones, 100 motorised backpack sprayers and in-person training – enabling locals to vanquish the locusts on their own in the future.

The equipment will be distributed to needy areas across the country.

“Our idea was to help them (the local people of Ethiopia) help themselves,” says Dr Yoav Motro, the vertebrate and locust specialist for Israel’ Ministry of Agriculture, confirming that his country seconded three experts to Ethiopia’s Somali region to train locals. “We can do that by bringing the correct equipment with us and training them to use it.”

According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation, more rains in the region now are not good for East Africa.

“Gati could impact current Desert Locust infestations in several ways,” the global food security body said last week. “The rains would allow immature swarms still present near Hargeisa and Jijiga, Ethiopia to rapidly complete their maturation and lay eggs. On the other hand, winds associated with the cyclone may have allowed these swarms to move southeast to the Ogaden where they would mature and lay eggs in current breeding areas.

“In either case, widespread breeding currently underway in eastern Ethiopia, central Somalia and perhaps southern Somalia, coupled with a potential expansion to northern Somalia, is expected to cause numerous immature swarms to start forming in early December and continue until the end of the year. Many of these swarms will migrate to southern Ethiopia and southern Somalia, reaching northern Kenya by mid-December and continue thereafter. The potential scale of this migration could be substantial.”

The FAO has appealed for locust control operations in the affected regions to be intensified, as well as calling on Kenya to stay vigilant and on the lookout. The locusts are a deadly plague to plant life in these areas, which are heavily dependent on agriculture for the livelihoods of their residents.

Which is why Israel’s agriculture ministry, working together with the foreign ministry’s Mashav (an agency for international development and cooperation) and the country’s embassy in Ethiopia has entered the fray – at least on the Ethiopian front for now.

A local precision agriculture company, Alta Innovation, had one of its employees join the team to train local teams in drone surveillance and night spraying; which is preferred to daylight spraying because the locusts would be roosting at night.

“It’s a novel method based on what we learned in 2013: To attack the locusts at night when they are asleep,” explains Motro, who personally oversaw the training of the actual spraying process. “That gives us an edge. Tomer (Tomer Regev, Alta Innovation CEO and Founder) taught a group of scouts – mostly university students, because they have to know how to read English — to track the swarms, using drones, to the exact location where they sleep.”

An estimated 20.2 million people face acute food insecurity in Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, South Sudan, Uganda and Tanzania if the situation does not improve soon. The FAO needs $153 million for rapid response until the end of the year.

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