Locust plague set to descend on Middle East in ‘extremely alarming situation’

Billions of locusts have blitzed through parts of East Africa and South Asia in the worst infestation for a quarter-of-a-century, ravaging crops and threatening food supplies. In January, the UN appealed for $76million (£59million) to tackle the crisis, but the figure has since risen to $138million (£115million). The insects, which eat their own body weight in food every day, are breeding so fast numbers could grow four hundredfold by June.

Until now, the main threats have been in East Africa and Yemen, as well as the Gulf states, Iran, Pakistan and India, but the coronavirus pandemic means travel of international experts and in-country gatherings for training is affected.

Keith Cressman, a senior Locust Forecasting at the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation, says there are new “extremely alarming” swarms forming in the Horn of Africa.

His department, Locust Watch, works in collaboration with affected countries to assess field data, information and reports in real-time where they are heading.

Mr Cressman told the Times of Israel this week: “The information is combined with analysis of remote sensing (satellite) imagery, weather data and forecasts, and historical data in our geographic information system and database that go back to the Thirties.

It’s an extremely alarming situation

Keith Cressman

“It is always very difficult to find and treat all infestations, and this is the nature and challenge of managing desert locust.

“It appears that the hardest-hit countries will include Kenya, Ethiopia, Somalia, Iran, Pakistan, and Sudan, the last of which will likely be affected later this summer.”

According to the Locust Watch website, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Oman and Yemen could also be hit by the new swarm.

Aerial and ground spraying combined with constant tracking of the swarms are viewed as the most effective strategies.

But, the aircrafts are in short supply.

Currently, Ethiopia was using five and Kenya six for spraying and four for surveying.

But the Kenyan government says it needs 20 planes for spraying and a continuous supply of the pesticide Fenitrothion.

The present outbreaks coincided with cyclones in 2018, and warm weather at the end of 2019, combined with unusually heavy rains, creating the perfect breeding ground.

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Segenet Kelemu, director-general of the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology in Nairobi, says there are other factors that have contributed, like the ongoing war in Yemen.

He said earlier this week: “Swarms also develop when control efforts break down or political or natural disasters prevent access to breeding areas, and interventions do not start early enough.

“Countries like Yemen, where there are human catastrophic situations due to conflict, are in no position to take care of invasive pests.”

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