Locusts head south for rains, threat of worst plague in 15 years

The first desert locust swarms have left their breeding areas in North Africa and moved south to Mauritania, Senegal, and Mali, threatening the Sahel region with its worst plague in 15 years unless action is taken, the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) has warned.

Mauritania has been spraying swarms of locusts with insecticide since June and a senior agriculture ministry official in neighbouring Senegal told IRIN that the first swarms had already landed in the north of the country.

The Rome-based FAO says the current desert locust upsurge is the most serious since the last plague of 1987-89, which needed control operations in 28 countries at a cost of more than $300 million. And officials warn international aid must be stepped up now to avoid a similar future plight.

"It is really urgent to mobilize the resources required to deal with this upsurge and avoid it evolving to a general invasion towards the end of the year,” Annie Monard, an FAO locust specialist, told IRIN from Rome.

Donors have so far pledged only half of the US $17 million that the FAO appealed for in April to help it run an existing campaign through the spring breeding period and extend it across the West African region in the summer. Meanwhile affected countries are having to dig into their own pockets.

Each day locusts eat the equivalent of their own weight -- two grammes -- and can munch away on food meant for humans as well as trees and grazing land.

“Now that the soils in north-west Africa are drying, locusts are migrating towards the south where the monsoon rains have started,” Mohamed Lemine, the man in charge of the FAO locust-fighting programme in Mauritania, told IRIN on Wednesday.

Crops in North African countries like Morocco have already been damaged by the flying pests. The Moroccan Press Agency said the country's agricultural authorities had warned on Tuesday that this year's infestations were of "an exceptional magnitude" and that every day for the last week locusts had infested 106,000 hectares of land, mainly in the east of the country.

The locust upsurge started in the Sahel last summer when breeding was encouraged by extremely heavy rainfall. The insects then headed north across the Sahara to Morocco and Algeria, but are now making their way back south. Swarms have been arriving in Mauritania for the last month.

“Since early June we have registered around 35 swarms comprising millions of insects and covering several hundred even thousands of hectares,” Lemine said by telephone from the Mauritanian capital, Nouakchott. "Last summer’s exceptional rains in Northwest and West Africa created very favourable conditions for locusts to develop.”

Swarms have already crossed the border from Mauritania into northern Senegal. Ndene Lo, the Agriculture Ministry official in charge of protecting vegetation, said that the first groups of locusts had been spotted on June 20 in the Podor area, although they were not too dense. Two days later locusts were sighted further east in the region of Matam.

"We treated 30 hectares around the department of Matam, and the situation has been calm since," he told IRIN in a telephone interview on Tuesday.

But worries remain. “Senegal fears a locust plague given the important developments in Mauritania and in North Africa," Lo said.

Mauritania, which remains poor pending the first income from offshore oilfields currently under development, has been hampered in its locust control efforts for the past year by a shortage of cash in government coffers.

“To date, a poor country like Mauritania has spent US$ 2 million trying to stop a locust plague. Much more is needed from external donors,” Lemine of FAO in Mauritania told IRIN.

FAO experts say they expect the swarms to spread to Niger, Chad and possibly western Sudan.

“Egg breeding is likely to occur within a vast area that stretches from the Atlantic coast in Mauritania to Chad. This could extend further into Darfur in western Sudan,” FAO said in a statement released on Monday. "A dramatic increase in locusts could threaten crop production during the coming months."

Killing the locusts using sprays before they have chance to lay eggs is the only way to prevent a plague as bad as the one that erupted in 1987.

“The swarms should be eliminated when they arrive, before they have time to reproduce,” Lemine of FAO in Mauritania explained, saying the authorities had a one-month window in each case.

However, this is not a very eco-friendly process. Conventional pesticides used to combat locusts can damage the environment and are harmful to some birds. Biological pesticides are not a realistic alternative given the urgency of the situation and the lack of funds because they need one or two weeks to take effect and are much more expensive.

In Niger, which FAO says is on the locusts' path, the authorities have mapped out three potential scenarios and are drafting plans of action.

The minister for Agricultural Development, Abari Mai Moussa, last week organised a donors meeting to drum up funds to fight a locust invasion.

He said that in the best-case scenario, where Niger would need to spend less than US$1 million to treat an area of 100,000 hectares with insecticides. However, if there is a locust plague on the scale of 1987-1989, one million hectares would need treating at an estimated cost of US $9 million.

At the moment the most likely scenario is somewhere in between, with the government needing to find about US $4 million to treat 500,000 hectares.

With the summer rains washing through the Sahel, agricultural officials everywhere agree on the urgency of the situation.

As Lemine told IRIN from Mauritania: "If we do not intervene on time to decrease the economic, social, environmental impact of the locust plague, we will spend more to control it, with no guarantee of success."