In-depth: The Eighth Plague - West Africa's Locust Invasion

WEST AFRICA: Locust invasions on West Africa

Photo: IRIN
NAIROBI, 1 December 2004 (IRIN) - During the course of 2004, several West African countries fell victim to the largest locust invasion in 15 years. Millions of hectares of crops and pasture were destroyed by giant swarms of insects (see A hundred million dollars to fight an age-old plague). By October 2004, ten different West and North African countries were affected - Algeria, Burkina Faso, Cap Verde, Chad, Mali, Morocco, Mauritania, Niger, Senegal, and Western Sahara.

Experts claim that this human and economic catastrophe could have been prevented, or at least considerably contained. The International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (ISDR), launched by the United Nations, details ways of reducing human, social, economic and environmental losses due to such natural disasters.

According to the strategy, the first principle of disaster reduction is the prevention of its causes. However, despite timely and repeated warnings, donors were slow to react. Countries invaded by the locusts were rapidly overwhelmed (see A catastrophe that had been predicted). Notwithstanding the significant financial and human resources eventually mobilised, the catastrophe grew as swarms multiplied across the region.

Photo: FAO
Locust larvae
Faced with a crisis of this magnitude, traditional methods of eliminating locusts are ineffectual (see And then came the locusts). According to El Houmbelly Ould Mohamed, a locust expert from Mauritania - the country hardest-hit, "[in 2004] there will be no millet, no sorghum, no beans and no peanuts in Mauritania. Animals will also be out of food, as there is no pasture, no trees for camels and goats, and no hay for cows and sheep."

Sub-regional solidarity between affected countries, which were eventually assisted by the international community, allowed for a massive eradication campaign (see Chemical warfare against locusts and its side effects). Still, the ravaged farming areas that locust invasions have left in their wake have severely reduced food security prospects for thousands of West African communities in 2004 and into 2005.

By the end of 2004, most of the swarms followed their seasonal migration paths to North Africa and reached as far as the Middle East. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations appealed for "a well-coordinated desert locust-control campaign to protect crops in the Maghreb and to reduce the risk of swarms re-invading the Sahelian countries next summer." The locust plague is far from eradicated.

In addition to these analytical and country-based news reports, IRIN looks at the origins of the crisis, its consequences for populations and potential solutions to prevent such a disaster from occurring in the future, in a short documentary filmed in Senegal and Mauritania entitled, "The Eighth Plague".