Crop-eating caterpillar to worsen South Sudan’s hunger woes: U.N

Crop-eating caterpillar to worsen South Sudan's hunger woes: U.N
Armyworms eat maize leaves. REUTERS/George Mulala/File Photo

An infestation of fall armyworm, a crop-eating caterpillar that has ravaged fields across Africa, will deepen hunger in famine-threatened South Sudan, a U.N. official said on Wednesday.

Outbreaks have been reported in southern Equatoria, a key farming region near the border with Uganda, as well as in areas of the Northern Bahr el Gazal and Jonglei states, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said.

“We are already in a very fragile situation in South Sudan… this new pest is coming on top of the rest,” Serge Tissot, the FAO representative in the country, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Even though South Sudan is no longer classified as being in famine, the number of families going hungry has increased in recent months, according to aid agencies.

Tissot said the armyworm invasion would aggravate food shortages in a country where more than half the population doesn’t have enough to eat because of civil war.

“(It) will reduce the quantity of food available in the country and increase prices,” he said by phone.

Two years after emerging as an independent state, oil-rich South Sudan was plunged into conflict in December 2013 as rivalry between President Salva Kiir and his then-vice president, Riek Machar, turned into violence.

Since then, fighting has often been along ethnic lines and the conflict has triggered Africa’s worst refugee crisis, with more than 3 million people fleeing their homes.

It has prevented many farmers from planting and harvesting crops. Hyperinflation, which hit more than 800 percent last year, has put the price of imported food beyond the reach of many.

Tissot said the FAO was assessing the additional damage done by the armyworm and planning a response but said operations were “very complex” with violence restricting access to some areas.

Native to North and South America, the caterpillar was first detected in Western Africa in 2016 and has since spread across sub-Saharan Africa, ravaging maize and other cereal crops.

It can fly long distances, leading the United Nations to fear it could reach Asia and the Mediterranean in the next few years.

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