West Africa reels under invasion of the locusts

ROME, Italy, August 18, 2004 (ENS): Rains usually mean good news for the arid countries of the West African Sahel, but this year, good rains have brought devastating swarms of locusts to Mauritania, Mali and Niger, and United Nations agriculture officials say the worst is yet to come.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said from its headquarters in Rome that the main reason for this year's enormous numbers of locusts is that a series of good rains has fallen, first in the Sahel during the summer of 2003, and then in Northwest Africa during winter/spring.

The rains have created favorable ecological conditions for locust development in the region and allowed at least four generations of locusts to breed one after the other, the UN agency said.

To survey the threat up close, the Chairman of the African Union Commission, the former President of Mali, Alpha Oumar Konare, and FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf are visiting Mauritania today.

In Mauritania, swarms of locusts moving from the north towards the south were reported in Tiris Zemmour, Adrar, Inchiri and the capital Nouakchott.

FAO officials say the first adult locusts of the summer generation could start to appear by the end of August.

"I can't just stand here with arms crossed - I have to plant my crops even if I know the locusts are going to come and eat them," says Jidhoum M'Bareck, a farmer near the town of Kaedi, Mauritania. "Between six and 10 people depend on this field."

Another farmer, Amadou Binta Thiam, 82, still tills his fields by hand. "I have a big family, 20 people depend on me. I have no children working outside who can send me money. If locusts get my field, it is a real catastrophe."

Massive hatching has started and large numbers of dense hopper bands are forming in Mauritania and along the Senegal River Valley. Many other farmers have stopped sowing seeds because of the locust threat.

Some locust swarms have reached westward into Chad. So far, there are no reports of swarms in Darfur, western Sudan, but "the threat remains high in August," the FAO says.

Sudanese refugees are still streaming east across the border into Chad, fleeing the Arab Janjaweed militia that have already killed roughly 30,000 people and driven more than a million from their homes.

In addition to its chronic poverty and the influx of refugees, Chad has now been hit by the locusts that flown in from West Africa.

The locusts heading towards the Chad-Sudan border are adding to the almost insupportable burden of misery there. Jean-Marie Fakhouri, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees' director of operations for Sudan and Chad, warned following a visit to Iridimi camp in northern Chad that the area has not turned green even under heavy rains and the situation is "very, very precarious."

Fakhouri left Chad to return to Darfur on Tuesday, continuing his mission to assess how the refugee agency can better help 200,000 Darfuri refugees in eastern Chad, as well as many of the estimated 1.2 million Darfuris displaced within Sudan in 18 months of civil conflict.

Countries from Morocco in northern Africa to Mauritania to the southwest have attempted to control the locust onslaught with pesticides sprayed by plane. Despite planeloads of pesticide, the insects have destroyed orchards, food crops, and grazing land in a wide swath across the continent.

At a recent ministerial meeting in Algiers involving the nine locust affected countries in western Africa, two scenarios were drawn up, costed at $58 million and $83 million, depending on the degree to which the situation may deteriorate.

Aircraft, pesticides, vehicles, sprayers and technical support are lacking in all affected countries, the FAO says.

So far, about $14 million has been committed through FAO by donors, including the Arab Organization for Agricultural Development, France, the Islamic Development Bank, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, the United States of America, and the FAO. Other funds from several more donors are in the pipeline, awaiting approval.

More locust breeding will occur from August onwards and the first new swarms could start to form by mid-September, threatening crops that will be ready for harvest. Soon afterwards, the swarms are likely to re-invade the north and northwest unless conditions remain unusually favorable in the Sahel to allow another generation of breeding, the agency says.

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