With funding from the international community, aerial and ground operations control have treated almost half a million hectares of crops against desert locusts across the Greater Horn of Africa and Yemen including 28 930 hectares in Somalia in 2020. By the June harvest, this effort saved US $280 million worth of crops ensuring over 6 million people in the region will meet their annual cereal needs, however there is much more to be done.
Dr Hared Nur, a Somali desert locust expert working with the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) to coordinate locust control operations in Puntland and Galmudug, says desert locusts can fly up to 150 kilometres a day and are wreaking havoc in a growing number of regions and countries. He says desert locusts are a highly mobile target so aerial control operations are the most effective tactic against locust swarms as they allow greater flexibility and can cover a much broader area.
“For the first time in 30 years the security situation in Somalia is allowing helicopter pilots hired by (FAO) to conduct locust control operations, spraying the desert locusts in Somalia and helping to save people’s food and livelihood sources. Aircrafts were flown from the United States of America in June and reassembled in Nairobi in Kenya, flown to Mogadishu in Somalia and then to Garowe in the Puntland State of Somalia where crops are being sprayed,” says Dr Nur.
Miles Woodgate, a pilot conducting the aerial spraying, says the evening before the flying day, Dr Nur communicates to the pilots the targets for the following day which are set based on the on the information received from ground spotters. He says on a typical day, the crew is picked up at 6am at their hotel to make their way to the airport for the morning briefing with the team, FAO experts and government officials.
“With the aircraft tanks refueled and briefing over, pilots take off and log between six and seven flying hours made up of a mixture of getting the helicopter to the spraying location and actual spraying of the nature-based biopesticide. The biopesticide specifically targets locusts and does not harm the environment nor endanger humans or livestock,” says the pilot.
According to Woodgate, logistics are the main challenge and it is not just about refueling, as Somalia continues to face conflict in many parts of the country and sites need to be controlled, as well as zones where they land must be safe for the crew. He says to spray desert locusts, you need to fly low, one and a half to two metres above the ground to optimise coverage and avoid strong winds that can blow the biopesticides away from their target.
“When pilots are out flying, we also don’t want to disturb local populations of people and animals. Most of the time, desert locusts are on the ground munching away at the vegetation and destroying fields, but when they start to fly, they hit the windshield with such force they can cause damage. When that happens, we turn away and we try and avoid them because it can damage the aircraft. It can damage the blades and can get stuck in the radiator,” says the pilot.
When the day’s spraying ends, the pilots land back at the airport, clean the tanks, clean the aircraft, have a debrief, give the paperwork to FAO and the government to let them know how many hectares we’ve covered. FAO then collect and analyse this material and update the Locust Watch dashboard on which the international community relies for real-time information.
VIDEO& PHOTO: FAO