The United Nations is sounding the alarm over swarms of locusts in East Africa that could become the region’s next plague.

Speaking at the AU Summit in Addis Ababa, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres pointed to changes in the climate as the main cause and appealed for greater international support for financing, adaptation and resilience across the continent.

This while the UN’s Emergency Relief Co-ordinator and representatives from the Food and Agriculture warned of a major shock to food security if the response is not expeditious.

The locust swarms – billions of insects covering large swathes of territory – already threatening several East African countries. With breeding and migration from Ethiopia into Somalia’s south and beyond, with the latter already declaring a national emergency.

Guterres says: “There is also a link between climate change and the unprecedented locust crisis plaguing Ethiopia and East Africa. Warmer seas mean more cyclones generating the perfect breeding ground. The FAO tells us a swarm the size of Paris will consume, in one day, as much food as half the population of France. I want to express my deep solidarity with the people and communities affected.”

Experts confirm the view, pointing to warming oceans and shifting rainfall patterns as a major reason for the outbreak with the locusts thought to have been carried to the Horn of Africa by storm rains from the Arabian Peninsular and beyond.

The effect is billions of these locusts are destroying farmlands and crops, eating in just one day the equivalent to that of 84 million people – in a vulnerable region already facing threats of devastating hunger and insecurity.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation’s Dominque Burgeon says: “We have a situation in Kenya where we have 15 counties in North and central Kenya that are affected, we have also as of last night, we got report now we have in addition to Kenya, Ethiopia, Somalia – we have Uganda and Tanzania that are also affected, so it’s spreading. So now we have in all these countries, we have mature, especially in Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia – we have mature swarms that are laying eggs and we’re seeing that there is a new generation coming.”

Some 13 million people face acute food insecurity in the region with a further 20 million on the verge of a major shock.

The international funding appeal is for 76 million dollars but only 21 million has been received to date, including 10 million from the UN’s Central Emergency Fund.

The UN’s Emergency Relief Co-ordinator, Mark Lowcock says: “Unless we get a grip of this in the new two, three or four week, we’re worried we’re going to have a really serious problem, we can make a lot of progress if we act now and FAO have put in place lots of the things that needed to be done to react now. The binding constraint is the money. And our plea really is for those member states and other organisations who are thinking something about this don’t think for too long.”

The planting season for East Africa usually starts around March or April adding urgency to reduce the locust burden on pastoral communities.

The FAO’s Dominique Burgeon warns that the new generation of locusts currently being bred could be more voracious as a result.”

“You have to realize when you look at the crop calendar of that part of the world, we are as we speak in between two planting seasons. So the locusts same before when it was towards the end of the previous cropping season, therefore damages in the previous seasons are relatively limited. Now, they are breeding big time and they will be ready I would say for very large damage as of March and April.”

Other nations threatened include South Sudan, Eritrea and Djibouti – countries that lack the capacity to respond to such threats.