- The desert locust crisis in Mauritania, Senegal, Mali and Niger is "expected to deteriorate over the next few weeks," and there was a serious risk that the Maghreb countries would be reinvaded by swarms from October onwards, FAO warned today. Harvests were reported to be at risk all over West Africa, in a year where the impoverished region expects a bumper harvest.
It is estimated that around three to four million hectares of land are now infested by locusts in West Africa, with Mauritania being the worst hit country. Only in Mauritania, around an estimated 1.6 million hectares are infested, according to FAO, representing the bulk of the desert country's exploitable lands.
Control measures are lagging behind the steady expansion of the pest. About 300,000 hectares have been treated this summer so far in the region. The rate of control however was "likely to increase considerably with the expanding aerial spraying capacity," the UN's food and agricultural agency said today.
A bumper harvest is expected in West Africa this agricultural season. "A substantial portion of this harvest is at risk because of the unusually high locust infestations," warned Keith Cressman, FAO's locust information officer. According to country reports, up to 40 percent of pastures and 10 percent of vegetables have been damaged so far.
There are, however, few reliable estimates of regional crop losses that could allow precise forecasts of famine in West Africa, FAO said. Local communities in affected countries had already been "severely hit and may be in need of assistance." FAO assessment teams were to visit affected countries in October to obtain information on crop losses, the UN agency said.
A locust swarm moves with the wind up to 200 kilometres in a day. One metric ton of locusts - which is a very small portion of an average swarm - eats as much food in one day as about 2,500 people. Locusts live between 3 and 6 months. There is a tenfold increase in locust numbers from one generation to the next.
The current locust crisis first developed in Mauritania and Western Sahara in October last year after unusually good rains had made the desert green. From there, swarms in March this year spread to the Maghreb countries - Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia - where costly control efforts hindered widespread destructions. In June, swarms again crossed the Sahara desert and started invading the Sahel, from Mauritania to Chad.
Currently, widespread breeding is occurring in Mauritania, Senegal, Mali and Niger and, to a lesser extent, in Burkina Faso. Smaller-scale breeding is in progress in Cape Verde and Chad. Desert locust hopper bands were rapidly developing in all affected countries and the first generation of summer swarms have already started forming in Mauritania and Niger, FAO said.
According to Mr Cressman, the wide extent of the locust plague in West Africa will provoke yet another Sahara crossing into north-west Africa and the Maghreb countries in near future. "The scale of the locust invasion in north-west Africa is likely to be larger than last spring," Mr Cressman today warned. He foresees swarms to reach Western Sahara, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya.
- The extent of the new invasion in the Maghreb countries depends on the success of the ongoing survey and control operations in West Africa, and on the quantity, distribution and frequency of rainfall in the coming months, he added. "The success of control operations in West Africa is crucial if we want to reduce the new threat to the Maghreb countries."
Not only the Maghreb stands at risk in the forthcoming months. Also the locusts' infection area in West Africa is expected to widen, according to Mr Cressman. A substantial number of swarms will form in the coming weeks in the Sahel in West Africa, he said. Locust swarms will stretch over dozens of kilometres containing billions of insects.
Some of these swarms may stay put and could breed again in the next two months, while others may reinvade Senegal and move southwards, to The Gambia, Guinea Bissau and possibly Guinea by the end of the year, according to the locust expert. "However, the majority of the swarms are expected to move to west and north-west Mauritania and breed there."
FAO again appealed for more funds to fight the locust plague in an effective way, hoping to avoid the scenario predicted by Mr Cressman. As of today, donor countries have approved a total of US$ 24 million, of which FAO has actually received only US$ 4 million. The agency has provided US$ 5 million from its own resources. This is a small percentage of the US$ 100 million the UN agency estimates is needed to control the widespread locust outbreaks.
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