Farmers in Uganda are bracing for a fresh onslaught of desert locusts after two swarms entered the country from neighboring Kenya last week, threatening to destroy crops and intensify hunger amid the struggle to contain the COVID-19 pandemic.
"This represents an unprecedented threat to food security and livelihoods because it coincides with the beginning of the long rains and the planting season," the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said on Wednesday.
According to local authorities, the latest insect invasion came through the eastern border district of Amudat on April 3.
However, unlike previous swarms of mature, less ravaging insects that crossed into the country in February, the new arrivals comprise 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 a high affinity for food. This may pose an imminent danger to food security and livelihoods," he added.
For her part, the executive director of the Food Rights Alliance, Agnes Kirabo, said, "farmers have no other way of deriving a livelihood except their farms," at the same time "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 marginalized region are particularly at risk, according to Al Jazeera.
On the other hand, 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 had deployed more than 2,000 military troops to carry out control operations. Still, 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 is skeletal staff supporting the field control activities," also said Loupa Pius, the project officer at Dynamic Agropastoralist Development Organisation in Karamoja.
But, despite the threat posed by 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.
For his part, Loupa said that "people should be advised to halt the planting of crops to observe the direction and the stage of desert locust outbreak," otherwise the situation would only be worsening.
Meanwhile, the United Nations has warned the locust swarms could increase 500 times by June, posing a significant threat to millions of people in an already vulnerable region.
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.