Mother of 10 Marima Wadisha screamed, threw rocks, and in desperation even fired bullets at the locusts that descended on her sorghum fields in northeast Ethiopia.
But the insect swarms were so relentless that her entire crop – her family’s only source of income – was destroyed.
“They never left for a week. We are left with an empty harvest … How can I feed my children like this?” the widow said, surrounded by five of her kids as she held a bundle of damaged sorghum.
The locust invasion is Ethiopia’s worst in 25 years, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
It has damaged an estimated 200,000 hectares (490,000 acres) of land since January, threatening food supplies. A single square-kilometre swarm can eat as much food in a day as 35,000 people.
It is part of a once-in-a-generation succession of swarms that has plagued East Africa and the Red Sea region since late 2019, with the coronavirus pandemic exacerbating the crisis this year by disrupting FAO’s supply chain of pesticides and other equipment to fight them off.
“The biggest challenge now in the region is here, in Ethiopia, and we are working on that together with our partners like the FAO,” said the Desert Locust Control Organization’s Director for Eastern Africa Stephen Njoka.
Conflict and chaos in Yemen, where some of the swarms originated, have made spraying pesticide by aeroplane at the source impossible. That, combined with unusually heavy rains, has swelled the swarms spreading across Ethiopia.
The World Bank has said the insects could cost East Africa and Yemen $8.5bn this year, and the FAO’s Ethiopia representative Fatouma Seid fears the pattern of destruction will be repeated next year.
“Infestation will continue into 2021. We are being reinvaded and the swarms will then go to Kenya,” she said.