Mauritania + 2 more

Fears of famine as locusts advance across W.Africa

NOUAKCHOTT (Reuters) - Nearly a million people in West Africa face famine unless they get international aid to battle swarms of locusts devouring their crops in the region's worst plague in 15 years, farmers and government experts warned.
The locusts are sweeping into crop-growing areas of the Sahel, on the Sahara's southern fringe, a region whose people are mostly subsistence farmers and whose governments lack the means to fight the infestation.

A fraction of a swarm can eat the same amount in a day as 10 elephants, 25 camels or about 2,500 people, experts say, destroying subsistence crops such as sorghum and millet as well as money earners like water melons and groundnuts.

"We have to expect a deficit in our cereal crop of around 80 percent. What's more, 600,000-800,000 people will be affected by famine," Mohamed Lemine, an official from Mauritania's national agriculture federation, told reporters late on Saturday.

"If steps are not taken we can't hope for any harvest this year," another senior federation official said.

The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation warned as long ago as October that locust swarms threatened to wreak havoc on the region after exceptional rains and humidity following several years of drought allowed the insects to flourish.

But the response has fallen woefully short. The FAO said two weeks ago that damage from the airborne invasion could triple to $245 million within a year if no emergency aid is provided soon.

It put immediate aid needs at $80 million and said just $9 million had been pledged so far.

Mauritania and Niger both say they need up to $20 million, extra aircraft to spray crops, and hundreds of thousands more litres of pesticide to contain the plague.

MASS FOOD SHORTAGES

The last major plague in 1987-89 started in western Sudan, but hit 28 nations and spread as far as India, meaning even countries not yet infested are preparing for the worst.

Gambia, a thin strip of territory surrounded by Senegal to the south of Mauritania, has declared a state of emergency and asked the United Nations for $700,000 in aid. Petrol stations have pledged fuel to help the fight.

"With the locust invasion there will be mass food shortages. More than 70 percent of the population is dependent on farming for its survival," Agriculture Minister Sulayman Sait said.

"It will severely affect our economy, since groundnuts are our major foreign exchange earner."

Experts and residents are comparing the latest plague with the 1987-89 invasion, the worst in 30 years which took $300 million to contain.

"I lived through that invasion and I can tell you that all our fields were wrecked," said Boube Alfari, 65, a farmer at Gorou Kirey, 7 km (4.5 miles) west of Niger's capital Niamey.

"When I hear that the state doesn't have the means to fight locusts, I think to myself there'll be famine next year."

Farmers have been urged to fight the locusts with traditional methods -- digging holes that young, wingless insects will fall into then burning or drowning them, or, failing that, stamping on them and beating them with sticks.

But some believe it is the fact people have turned their backs on tradition that has brought this curse.

"We have abandoned a lot of rites, particularly dances and sacrifices, during which we are warned of certain events and how to prevent them," said Amadou Goumey, a farmer in the village of Goudel, Niger.

"Now it's coming back to haunt us." (Additional reporting by Abdoulaye Massalatchi in Niamey and Pap Saine in Banjul)

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