- Locust swarms last week invaded the capital of Mauritania, Nouakchott, spreading fear among residents. As the swarms keep multiplying and moving, Mauritania's promising agricultural season and pastures are at risk and the government is appealing for international aid.
Nouakchott residents knew the locusts were approaching the desert city and cloud-like swarms first were an attractive sight on the Nouakchott skyline. As the air became filled with insects, however, terrified residents withdrew to houses.
Within hours or minutes, Nouakchott residents saw their compounds, gardens or city farms stripped of leaves, grass or agricultural plants. The locusts are even reported to have done off with the grass from the national football stadium.
For most residents of the Mauritanian capital, the locust invasion will have limited economic consequences. Gardening and small-scale farming is only a supplementary income. As the locust swarms increasingly strip the Mauritanian countryside bare of greenery, however, a food emergency may evolve.
After years of drought and close to total crop failures, Mauritanian farmers and herders this year were blessed with good rains and above-record crops and pastures. Where the crops are not yet harvested, they stand at risk.
Pastures are at risk in any way. Rural Mauritanians depend strongly on their herds: the country has 17 million head of cattle, sheep, goats and camels - compared to 2.8 million inhabitants.
- There will be famine if the locusts wipe out the crops, says Mohamed El Haceu Ould Jaavar, Chief of Intervention at Mauritania's National Locust Centre. "It is what the people depend on," he adds.
Mr Ould Jaavar says big damage to market vegetable gardens have already been registered. "The situation is critical. We don't have the means to cope with the situation. We need vehicles, planes and pesticides to treat the locust."
- If locusts get my field, it is a real catastrophe, says 82-year-old Amadou Binta Thiam, a farmer near the Mauritanian town of Kaedi. "I have a big family - 20 people depend on me. I have no children working outside who can send me money," he adds.
Ahmed Ould Bah, who owns a herd of several hundred animals in the Kaedi area, says he already notices the difference only weeks into this locust upsurge. "When the locusts spend the night here they don't leave anything. I have to go further and further away to find grazing."
Mauritanian authorities are now asking for increased international help to stop the spread of the locust swarms and to be prepared to contribute with food aid to those areas affected. Mauritania is ill-equipped to treat the swarms and the army has just one plane which could spray pesticides. The country needs 15 planes, 600,000 tons of chemicals and US$ 16 to 20 million.
The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) agrees that the internationally community urgently needs to assist Mauritania. FAO has repeatedly warned about this upcoming crisis but little funds have arrived from donors. If the locusts are not stopped in Mauritania, they will spread all over the Sahel, maybe even into Sudan, FAO warned last week.
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