DAKAR, 21 July (IRIN) - Locust swarms could strike eastern Chad and the troubled Darfur region of western Sudan in the coming weeks, but flooding and instability in the area are making it difficult to gauge the extent of the threat, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) said on Thursday.
FAO said in its latest locust bulletin that the insects were breeding in eastern Chad and northern and western Darfur.
Monitoring teams had spotted bands of flightless young hoppers, but the scale of the existing locust population was not known due to limited access to these remote areas, it added.
Earlier this month, FAO had said the semi-arid Sahel region would be spared a devastating locust invasion like the one it suffered in 2004.
However, it noted then that Chad was among a handful of countries where small-scale breeding had taken place throughout June.
"The extent of the infestation is very difficult to determine because roads are washed out," Keith Cressman, a locust forecasting officer at the FAO's headquarters in Rome, told IRIN on Thursday.
The rains in eastern Chad fill normally dry river beds that cut across roads throughout the region, completely blocking overland transport for days at a time.
"With the difficulty of access and the rains favourable for breeding there is a potential for an outbreak in Chad and extending to Darfur," Cressman said.
FAO expects to send a helicopter to eastern Chad by the end of July in order to monitor the region by air, he added.
The bulletin said that to date only limited ground control operations have been possible in Chad and Sudan.
Should swarms develop and start moving, neighbouring countries would have to be prepared to take measures to control their spread if necessary, Cressman warned.
Libya, which borders Chad to the north, has indicated that it may send some survey and control teams into Chad, he said.
Insecurity in eastern Chad is also a worry for the FAO teams.
Cressman said that earlier this month bandits stole an FAO vehicle at gunpoint in Abeche, the main town in eastern Chad, in broad daylight.
It could be an isolated incident but it is a cause for concern, another FAO official noted.
Violence and banditry are also common in Darfur on the Sudanese side of the border, where several rebel movements have been fighting the government in Khartoum and its Arab militia allies since 2003.
Last year West Africa suffered its worst locust invasion in 15 years. Large swarms ravaged crops and pasture in Niger, Mauritania, Mali and northern Senegal.
The insects, which weigh about two grammes, can eat their own weight of vegetation in a day. When breeding conditions are right, they form dense and highly destructive swarms occupying several square kilometres that can strip an area of greenery within hours.
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