- The locust plague that has ravaged Mauritania, Western Sahara, Morocco and Algeria is in the process of spreading at a "worrying" paste. In North Africa, locusts have already spread into Tunisia and western Libya. South of the Sahara, FAO now warns authorities in Chad, Mali, Niger and Senegal of an imminent locust threat.
- The locust situation in Northwest Africa is very worrying despite intensive control activities, FAO warned in a statement published today. "An upsurge is under way in the region," the UN agency added.
Locust swarms started forming and spreading in central Mauritania at the end of last year. In March this year, the locust plague got out of control as sufficient pest control action was not taken in Mauritania and Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara. Swarms spread into the Atlas Mountains of Morocco and Algeria and started breeding there.
Meanwhile, most of North Africa has been infected by the plague that finishes off with harvests and pastures in a matter of days in affected areas. According to FAO's Clive Elliott, locusts are now "breeding in thousands of spots over large areas south of the Atlas Mountains stretching from Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia to western Libya."
While the locusts are expected to infect some new areas in North Africa, the great threat at this moment is that the pest again seems to head southwards, rapidly crossing the Sahara desert. Here, if FAO predictions prove correct, harvests of the impoverished Sahelian countries are at risk.
Hoppers were now forming bands and were at the last stage before they become adults, Mr Elliott says. "Swarms are likely to start forming from the end of this month. The winds are expected to carry a substantial number of locust adults and swarms south to the Sahel Region in West Africa where they could start to arrive in southern Mauritania, northern Senegal, Mali, Niger and Chad in about mid June," the FAO locust expert warns.
The UN agency therefore called upon authorities in Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Senegal to urgently "prepare intensive survey and control operations" against these possible desert locust swarms. Small swarms had already started forming in northern Mauritania, and localised damage to millet, sorghum, date palms and vegetables had been reported, FAO said.
Government agencies of the region and FAO already have taken steps to control the spreading peat, but FAO acknowledges that these steps are a "race against time." A total area of 2.1 million hectares has been treated with insecticides since October 2003 in Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia.
- Despite intensive control operations on the ground and by air, it is very difficult to find and treat all of the locust infestations in the vast and often remote desert areas, Mr Elliott however said. "Control teams are doing their best, but it is a race against time. In addition to the swarms that move south into the Sahel, it is possible that some swarms could move east into western Sudan," he added.
While it is difficult to regain control over the locust plague, local authorities nevertheless can take steps to avoid the worst consequences of arriving locust swarms. The governments of Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Senegal were urged to start preparing "immediately," FAO said.
This included preparing and equipping teams for field surveillance and preparations for control operations in those areas that receive the first summer rains and where the swarms may appear. "Resources for sprayers, vehicles, pesticides and training should be mobilised," the UN agency added. FAO was also taking steps to assist affected countries and several donors had also offered their support.
More than US$ 40 million have already been spent since October 2003 on locust control operations in the region. Most funds were provided by locust-affected countries. However, also international donors, such as the European Commission, Italy, Norway, Spain and the US have contributed with substantial funds. FAO is currently seeking an additional US$ 17 million to assist countries in eliminating hopper infestations and swarms.
The UN agency has received some responses from donors but fears that time is now running out. "If these funds are not made available quickly, it is possible that the whole region will be subjected to a full-scale plague by the end of 2004," Mr Elliott said. The last desert locust plague, in 1987-1989, took several years and more than US$ 300 million before it was brought to an end.
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