The armies of locusts which have been ravaging parts of Kenya for the last three weeks may not march through the breadbasket counties, after all, a forecast by the United Nations shows.
The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) instead expects the pests to head northwest into Baringo and Turkana counties before entering Uganda.
Some swarms will fly to Ethiopia, which is battling other locust swarms.
The news comes as a relief to farmers in Nakuru, Kericho, Uasin Gishu, Trans Nzoia, Narok, Bungoma and West Pokot counties where much of the country’s staple, maize, is produced.
Officials who run the country’s economy can also sigh with relief.
The swarms crossed into northeast Kenya on December 28, 2019 and have spread to Mandera, Marsabit, Wajir, Garissa, Isiolo, Samburu, Meru and Laikipia.
The locusts – a lethal species of the grasshopper family that eats every green matter in its sight – have the potential to knock down seasons of food, prompting acute hunger and substantially slow down the economy that is dependent on agriculture.
Panic had gripped the country when swarms were spotted in Kirinyaga, sparking fears that the pests were on a southwards march.
According to Dr George Ongamo, an entomologist at the University of Nairobi, FAO is basing its predictions on the Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ) projections that indicate a shift in the wind patterns in Kenya.
The ITCZ is where the trade winds that flow over the country meet.
When, for instance, the ITCZ shifts to north of the Equator, the southeast trade wind changes to a southwest wind as it crosses the Equator.
Dr Ongamo, who is involved in the locust control programme at the Entomological Society of Kenya, said there are indications that the zone will shift next month.
This means the winds will change their southern-bound course and shift to the west.
“Desert locusts are poor fliers, meaning they can only fly while being carried by the wind. If direction changes after the meeting zone for the trade winds, the insects cannot fly against the wind despite abundant vegetation elsewhere,” Dr Ongamo said.
The official, however, warned the country against complacency “since there are more swarms in Eritrea, Djibouti, Somalia and Egypt”.
“We are not out of the woods yet. Caution is still advised as there are swarms of locusts outside the country to worry about,” he said.
Dr Ongamo said scouts are on the ground in the affected areas looking for sites where the insects laid eggs “to eliminate them with pesticides at the larva and nymph stages”.
Meanwhile, disputes in government and civil society have denied Kenya quick access to funds which would have been used to stop invasion of the locusts, the Nation can report.
During a climate change summit in France in 2015, developed nations agreed to raise $100 billion by 2020 to address the pressing needs of the developing world.
Kenya was to be a direct beneficiary of the programme.
“There is a conflict between the Ministry of Environment, which coordinates activities related to climate change, and Treasury, which is the recipient of the GCF money,” said Dr George Wamukoya, lawyer and the lead official on agriculture for the Africa Group of Negotiators on Climate Change.
Dr Wamukoya notes that the locust invasion is directly linked to global warming and adds that control of the locust menace should be financed by the National Treasury using money from the Green Climate Fund (GCF).
The Fund was established under the 2016 Climate Change Act.
The Act established the Climate Change Council, chaired by the President, and which is the supreme agency when it comes to making decisions.
However, the council is yet to become operational since its establishment in 2016.
This is because the civil society has not been able to agree on a representative at the council as required by the law.
It is a setback for Kenya because emergency decisions to release funds for situations like the current locust invasion can only be taken by the council.
Mr Peter Odhengo, Senior Policy Adviser for climate finance at the National Treasury, said money can only be released from the kitty if the locust invasion is declared a national disaster.
“Had the Climate Change Council been formed, it would be easy for it to sit down, assess the situation and release funds based on advice from experts,” Mr Odhengo said.
As a result, the burden now rests with the Ministry of Agriculture and the Desert Locust Control Organisation for Eastern Africa (DLCO-EA).
“The sad thing is that there have been warnings and updates by FAO in its forest locust disaster watch from as early as June 2019 when the invasive and destructive insects affected parts of Saudi Arabia and Yemen, and moved further South of the Red Sea, but there was no reaction from those concerned,” Dr Mithika Mwenda of the Pan African Climate Justice Alliance said.
The direct link of the desert locust invasions to climate change is the unpredictability of rainfall patterns.
According to experts, rains are heavier and lasting longer than usual or than expected. The ensuing greenery is what entices the otherwise slow breeding insects (in calm deserts) to be more active and fast in reproduction.