Africa: Locusts - Spray now or pay later

from The New York Times
Published on 06 Oct 2004
In scenes reminiscent of a biblical plague, desert locusts are sweeping across West Africa in swarms the size of Chicago. Moving up to 100 miles a day, swarms of several billion locusts are devouring crops and pastures in some of the poorest areas on earth. Unless immediate action is taken to stop what is now the worst locust plague of the last decade, up to 25 percent of crops in West Africa could be lost, and the livelihoods of 150 million people put at risk by year's end.

The locust is one of the most destructive insects on earth, able to eat the equivalent of its own body weight every day. Combine the huge appetites of an individual locust with the huge numbers in these swarms - up to 160 million locusts per square mile - and the results are devastating. A tiny percentage of just one swarm can eat as much food in a day as 2,500 people. In Mauritania, for example, locusts have destroyed nearly half the crop, and on Monday, a swarm invaded the capital, Nouakchott, stripping it of everything green.

This month a new locust breeding cycle begins. If the larvae are not sprayed, there will be in a tenfold increase in locusts. We now have less than four weeks to stop the locusts from multiplying exponentially and moving north to reinvade the Mediterranean part of Africa. If we act quickly, modern technology can help us counter this ancient threat: sophisticated satellite early-warning systems can pinpoint locust infestations, and chemical pesticides that degrade within days can eliminate swarms. Scientific experts are already on the ground and political leaders across West Africa are ready to act. What's missing is the money for a locust control program that is large enough to tackle the problem.

As any good gardener knows, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, especially when dealing with pests. In March, the Food and Agriculture Organization called for $9 million to head off the impending locust invasion. Yet that appeal and subsequent warnings fell on deaf ears. Now that the infestation has spread, destroying millions of dollars worth of crops in the process, the costs have risen tremendously, to more than $100 million.

With the ravages of the locust swarms becoming more apparent, donors and the United Nations have now pledged $73 million, of which only $21 million has been received. Because of the shortfall, only 25 percent, or 2.2 million acres, of the areas that need to sprayed to prevent new infestation have been treated. In the untreated areas, the next generation of locusts will soon take to the skies and wreak havoc across vast areas of Africa. From Senegal in the west to Sudan in the east and up into North Africa, billions of locusts will eat their way through crops and pastureland.

But it's not too late to head off a major food emergency. If donors commit to an additional $27 million, we can treat the land and stop the locusts. It's an investment that will pay for itself by avoiding the need for large-scale and expensive food assistance from the international community.

For farmers in Kansas or California, an insect invasion represents a very costly but ultimately surmountable crisis; for struggling farmers in Africa, locusts pose a grave threat not only to their livelihoods, but to life itself. Communities in impoverished nations like Mali, Niger or Chad - where some 200,000 refugees from across the border in Darfur now live in the most desperate of conditions - are already struggling to prevent people from going hungry.

In the book of Exodus, Pharaoh was threatened with a plague of locusts thick enough to cover the face of the earth. Today, Africa is similarly threatened, but this time potential solutions are available. Thousands of the world's poorest and hungriest families are counting on us to act quickly and generously to save them from disaster.

Jan Egeland is the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and the Emergency Relief Coordinator for the United Nations.