FAO warns of possible spread of desert locusts

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has called for intensified surveys and early action in Sudan and neighbouring Eritrea to avoid a possible outbreak of desert locusts.

"In early June, a few swarms originating from the so-called Southern Circuit, from the Sahel countries, moved across West Africa and reached [Sudan's western states of] West and North Darfur, where they became mature and laid their eggs," Mahmoud Solh, eco-manager for FAO’s emergency centre for locust operations, said.

Some swarms had crossed the Nile River to Gedaref State in eastern Sudan, he added, while others had reached the western lowlands of Eritrea and northwest Ethiopia.

The FAO locust expert expected that swarm formation would start in Darfur by the end of June, and emphasised the importance of locust surveys in Sudan, Eritrea and Ethiopia.

"At this stage, if we do intensive surveys and early localised action in areas where there is locust formation, we should be able to control the situation," Solh said. FAO, he added, had already sent one of its experts to Sudan.

FAO was looking at the prospects for interventions in Darfur, he added, but given the ongoing conflict in the region, he felt it would be "very difficult to do much". The conflict pits Sudanese government troops and militias against rebels fighting to end "marginalisation and discrimination" of the region's inhabitants by the state. It has affected more than 2.4 million people.

FAO recommended a mechanical approach - digging open trenches in which to bury the locusts - in the very early stages, and the use of pesticides in later phases of infestation.

"Sudan is really a frontline country, and they do have the expertise and the facilities to deal with the problem," Solh said. "They might need support with the provision of pesticides, however."

As the results of the first assessments had not become available yet, Solh was unable to predict the potential damage to crops in the event that too little was done in Darfur to avoid an outbreak.

In Ethiopia, Mulugeta Debalkew, public relations officer at the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, told the Ethiopian News Agency on Monday that the desert locust could cause "massive damage" to crop, plant and forest resources in the lowlands of western Tigray and northern Gondar in the northwest of the country.

According to Mulugeta, the ministry had the capacity to control possible desert locust infestation at all levels. He called on organisations and individuals working in the areas at risk to immediately inform the ministry of any outbreaks of desert locusts.

In its latest update on the locust threat in Africa, FAO estimated that large-scale swarms were unlikely to invade West Africa this year. Last year saw the region witness the worst locust outbreak in 15 years.

According to FAO desert-locust expert, Clive Elliott, there had been an unconfirmed reports by nomads of two swarms in northern Mali in early June. He recommended launching immediate, intensive survey operations in Mali, Niger and Chad, and continued monitoring of the situation in Mauritania.

Last year, huge swarms invaded countries bordering the Sahara desert from northwest Africa, causing extensive damage. FAO, national governments and the international community spent over US $200 million fighting the scourge.

The desert locust is one of about a dozen species of short-horned grasshoppers that are known to form swarms of adults, which can be dense and highly mobile. According to FAO, locusts fly with the wind at a speed of 16 kph to 19 kph. Swarms can travel between five and 130 km or more in a day.

The swarms can vary in size - from less than one sq km to several hundred sq kms – and density. In each sq km of swarm, there can be between 40 million and 80 million adult locusts. An adult locust can consume its own weight – roughly two grams - in fresh food per day, the FAO estimates.