in General Aviation / Features

Going into battle against the deadly hoards

Posted 15 May 2017 · Add Comment

Helicopters and light jets have been used recently to fight African armyworms and locusts in Zambia and other countries in southern Africa. Humphrey Nkonde reports.

African Armyworms and several species of locusts have been damaging food crops, such as maize, sorghum, sugarcanes and millet, for centuries.
However, some scientists claim that severe attacks now are partly the result of climate change.
An estimated 124,000 hectares of maize was damaged in Zambia during the 2016/17 farming season, representing about 10% of the 1.4 million hectares of cereal crop under cultivation.
Lusaka, Copperbelt, Central, Luapula and Eastern were five of the 10 Zambia provinces where the armyworms struck.
Zimbabwe and Malawi, which have experienced droughts in recent years, were not spared from attacks either.
Malawi imported 100,000 metric tonnes of maize from Zambia last year to mitigate the impact of drought.
Zambia’s President, Edgar Lungu, ordered the Zambia Air Force (ZAF) to join Ministry of Agriculture and Disaster Management and mitigation unit officials to spray and distribute chemicals to control armyworms.
ZAF military personnel used jets to spray several points throughout the country to control the vegetation-devouring pests.
Meanwhile, there was an outbreak of red locusts in Kafue Flats, south of Lusaka, where South African company, Illovo, has a huge investment in sugar plantations at Nakambala.
The Zambian Government released funds to the International Red Locust Control Organisation for Central and Southern Africa (IRLCO-CSA) to control the outbreak of the locusts.
IRLCO-CSA’s forerunner, the International Red Locust Control Services (IRCS), was initiated by the British colonial government in 1949 following a series of devastating locust plagues between 1929 and 1944 that had caused people to die from famine.
Red locust attacks affected the region stretching from Sudan to South Africa, resulting in people and animals dying from famine.
IRCS’ initial mandate was to identify locust outbreak areas and to spray, so that swarms of the devastating pests could not migrate to other places. Later its mandate was extended to controlling the African armyworms and quelea birds, which consume wheat as well as rice grains.
Red billed quelea attacked rice fields in Nakuru-Navaisha and Rongai in Kenya among other places during the 2014/15 farming season. Those birds also attacked wheat fields in the same farming season in Zimbabwe’s Mashonaland East, Mashonaland Central and Midlands provinces.
Member states of IRLCO-CSA, headquartered in Ndola, Zambia, are Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
IRCS was initially established in Mbala in the northern part of Northern Rhodesia, now Zambia.
It was at Mbala that the British established a military airfield to protect its territory of Northern Rhodesia from invasions by Germans who occupied neighbouring German East Africa, now Tanzania.
The initial location of IRCS in Mbala was ideal because it was close to Tanzania, which has the highest number of red locust outbreak areas among member states.
However, a decision was reached to relocate the organisation to Ndola’s Simon Mwansa Kapwepwe International Airport, which started as a military airfield for the British colonial government in 1938.
Outbreak areas in Tanzania are Wembere Plains, Ikku/Kitavi Plains, the Lake Rukwa area and Malagarasi Basin. Tanzania also has an auxiliary outbreak area in the Bahi Valley.
In Zambia, red locust outbreak areas are in the Kafue Flats, where the pest emerged recently.
Zambia’s auxiliary outbreak area is in Lukanga Swamps near Kabwe, the provincial headquarters of Central Province.
Malawi’s red locust outbreak areas are the Lake Chilwa/Chiuta Plains, shared with Mozambique, while its auxiliary ones are in the Mptasanjoka Dambo and Ndindi Marshes.
In Mozambique, major breeding grounds are Buzi Gorongosa, while the auxiliary outbreak area is the Dimba Plains.
Another auxiliary locust outbreak area exists near Simunye Sugar Estate in Swaziland, a non-IRLCO-CSA member state.
Owing to several outbreak areas in Tanzania, IRLCO-CSA airstrips have been established at Masenge, near Wembere Plains, Kaliua, near Malagarasi Basin, and Muze, near Rukwa Plains.
Although IRLCO-CSA offices are in Ndola’s industrial area, the hangar in which its planes are kept is at Simon Mwansa Kapwepwe International Airport.
Locust outbreak and auxiliary areas are spatially dispersed in the southern part of Africa, necessitating the use of aircraft for quick response and to cover long distances from Ndola.
Ideally, IRLCO-CSA should have fixed-wing spray aircraft to deliver its scientists and other officials to outbreak areas that have airstrips, like those in Tanzania.
“In March 2010, IRLCO-CSA lost its only operational fixed-wing spray aircraft through a tragic accident, a development that has worsened the organisation’s capacity to respond to serious outbreaks,” said a recent report.
However, fighting red locusts also requires the use of helicopters in swampy or marshlands areas that can’t be accessed by motor vehicles or fixed-wing aircraft that require airstrips to land.
Additionally, the helicopters’ rotary blades are capable of driving away the pests from the ground, which helps to locate where they are.
IRLCO-CSA chief pilot, major John Malawo, said the ‘stumpy’ speed of helicopters enables spraying to be done, which cannot be achieved by fast-moving fixed-wing aircraft.
Late last year, IRLCO-CSA deployed its Bell Jet Ranger 206B III helicopter to fight the African migratory locusts that invaded food crops under irrigation in the southern part of Malawi.
IRCLO-CSA director, Moses Okhoba, said there was a need for another helicopter because, at times, spraying is done using hired planes.
There was another outbreak of locusts in Mozambique, but IRLCO-CSA could not fly there because it was in that region where Mozambican National Resistance (RENAMO) rebels were fighting the government.
The cost of controlling locusts in Malawi and Mozambique was estimated at $ 2.5 million. However, the value of the crop under irrigation and threat from locusts, including maize and sugarcanes, is $2 billion.
Okhoba, an expert from Kenya, said drought could aggravate locust outbreaks because, in times of heavy rain, some of the pests’ eggs would be naturally destroyed.
Another problem for IRLCO-CSA is that there is no established maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) company to work on both rotary and fixed-wing aircraft.
As the IRLCO-CSA’s hangar has not been listed to maintain Bell helicopters or fixed-wing aircraft, it means that South Africa’s National Airport Corporation maintains its helicopter.
“Our helicopter can only be worked on in South Africa,” chief pilot Malawo explained. “This is because Zambia does not have an established company that can do advanced maintenance works.”
It is for this reason that Aerotech Zimbabwe, which is experienced in maintaining Bell 206 series helicopters and other aircraft, has entered into an agreement with Zambia Air Services Training Institute (ZASTI) regarding MRO work.
A taxiway connecting ZASTI to Lusaka’s Kenneth Kaunda International Airport runway has been built so that the hangar at the training institute is accessible to aircraft.
Once IRLCO-CSA’s helicopter is maintained in Zambia, the cost will be reduced and the aircraft will have more flying hours available.
Food security will continue to be threatened by locusts and armyworms, partly because breeding has been aggravated by climate change. It is, therefore, imperative that IRLCO-CSA member states mobilise funds for the acquisition of both fixed-wing and rotary aircraft. That can be done by member states fulfilling their donations to the IRLCO-CSA, regardless of whether they have outbreak areas or not, because locusts are capable of migrating.
For instance, due to the war in Mozambique, landmines that were planted near locust outbreak areas caused problems in terms of access, which resulted in the pests breeding extensively.
In the 1990s, locusts from there migrated to Zimbabwe, settling near President Robert Mugabe’s State House, where they devoured green lawns.
And, once IRLCO-CSA’s only Bell helicopter is grounded, it is possible that countries lying south the equator can experience a repeat of the 1929 to 1944 locust plaque that caused people to die from famines.
It should also be remembered that food security in southern Africa is not only compromised by pests, but also by droughts and poor farming methods.

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