Ethiopia has began spraying chemicals to battle growing swarms of desert locusts that were recently spotted in the far western Tigray and Amhara regions, officials said on Monday.
The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) warned that the numbers of desert locusts would grow unless urgent action was taken to kill the swarms.
"Unless control measures are carried out immediately there will be a great deal of destruction of crops," Yimer Assen of FAO Ethiopia, said. "The volume of the locusts is increasing and the problem we face is that they are migrating from one village to another."
Swarms contain millions of locusts that literally eat everything in their path. Each insect can eat its own body weight in food each day.
"They are very destructive in the amount of matter they eat in a day," Peter Odiyo, head of the Desert Locust Control Organisation of East Africa (DLCO), said.
"In a country already facing serious food shortages, that translates into a lot of damage to livestock, grazing areas and food crops in the field. They eat anything green," he added.
He said the locusts were also causing damage in the self-declared semi-autonomous region of Puntland in neighbouring Somalia.
Government and UN officials, he added, were trying to confirm how many locusts had infested the region but believed it was in the millions.
"We are thinking in terms of millions because that is the normal size they move in," Odiyo added.
The DLCO was launching air and ground pesticide spraying against the swarms to try and contain the infestation.
"We could have a bigger outbreak on our hands developing as a result of the egg laying that is taking place," Odiyo said. "We need to stop this urgently."
Government officials estimated that in the worst hit areas along the northern border regions with Sudan and Eritrea, the infestation density was around 300,000 locusts per ha.
The agriculture ministry’s locust expert, Fikre Markos, said villagers had reported seeing locust clouds 20 ha wide. However, he added, the ministry had no details on the total number, adding that swarms in Ethiopia were usually quite small.
"There can be at least 40 million and sometimes as many as 80 million locust adults in each sq. km of swarm," he said.
Belay Ejigu, Ethiopia’s state minister for agriculture, had traveled to the region which is some 900 km north of Addis Ababa, to assess the scale of the problem.
"Our teams are trying to find the largest locust army to destroy it," Mulugeta Debalkew, spokesman for the agriculture ministry, said.
One of the poorest countries in the world, Ethiopia depends on its crop harvests to feed millions who otherwise depend on food aid.
Locusts have in the past laid to waste parts of Africa. In 2004, they ruined more than one million hectares of crops in Mauritania. The swarms have spread from Chad through Sudan and into Eritrea and northern Ethiopia.