Sahel faces new food security threat: Locust swarms

A swarm of locusts. The Food and Agriculture Organization has issued an alert for possible locust swarms in Northwest Africa, which could place the food security of 50 million people at risk. Photo by: Shovelling Son / CC BY-NC-SA

The United Nations is warning that the imminent arrival of locust swarms in Northwest Africa could threaten the food security of some 50 million people.

The locusts could also derail the fragile progress that has been made in warding off a famine in the Sahel region, given pest control groups’ possible inability to access certain politically hot regions.

The Food and Agriculture Organizationsaid Oct. 23 that swarms of locusts, which can travel at 150 kilometers a day with the wind, are presently forming in Chad, Mali and Niger. They are expected to then arrive in parts of Libya, Algeria, Morocco and Mauritania in the next few weeks.

Keith Cressman, FAO’s senior locust forecasting officer, told Devex Friday that ground control operations are ongoing in Chad, Mauritania and Niger. In Mali, survey teams are in the country’s central cropping areas, “where it is safe to go,” and there, no locusts have so far been located. None were seen as well in Morocco and Algeria, which have both deployed survey teams in the field to detect incoming locusts.

“Morocco has airlifted pesticides to Mali, and Senegal has airlifted to Chad under pesticide triangulation arrangements by FAO so as not to procure additional stocks from outside the region,” Cressman wrote in an email to Devex.

He noted that insecurity had made it difficult to monitor and control infestations in northern Mali, as national teams have no access to that region. The situation is similar in northern Niger, where teams can only enter some areas and always with a military escort.

In June 2012, FAO identified the possibility of locust swarms that could threaten summer rainfed crops in agricultural zones in Niger, Mali and Chad,  and called for $10 million in funding. So far, $4.1 million has been received.

“About half the remainder [of the needed funding] is under negotiation with donors,” Cressman said. “The current needs are still within the $10 million appeal.”

Funding requests for the overall Sahel food insecurity crisis also remain unmet, in part because of the initial strong international mobilization to the disaster, which prevented it from escalating to a famine, as World Food Program Executive Director Ertharin Cousin told Devex this September.

The Sahel food crisis has affected 18.7 million people in nine countries and forced more than 400,000 people from their homes. About 58 percent of the $1.6 billion needed has been funded. 

Andrienne Galvez contributed reporting.

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    Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is an award-winning journalist based in New York City. Her coverage on politics, social justice issues, development and climate change has appeared in a variety of international news outlets, including The Guardian, Slate and The Atlantic. She has reported from the U.N. Headquarters, in addition to nine countries outside of the U.S. Amy received her master of arts degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in May 2014. Last year she completed a yearlong fellowship on the oil industry and climate change and co-published her findings with a team in the Los Angeles Times.

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