By Ibrahima Sylla
NOUAKCHOTT, Aug 5 (Reuters) - Mauritania needs up to $20 million, 15 airplanes and 640,000 litres of pesticide to contain a locust plague engulfing its arid plains, the West African nation's top locust fighter said on Thursday.
Swarms spread across almost all of the country, roughly twice the area of France, on Thursday after invading the capital Nouakchott, eating everything green in their path including the city's main soccer pitch and the president's gardens.
"These swarms are a serious threat to the nation's crops, plants and even livestock," Mohamed Abdallahi Ould Babah, head of the agriculture ministry's anti-locust centre, told Reuters.
He said Mauritania's army had just one operational airplane, and that the environment ministry had 10 teams on the ground to fight locusts but needed nearer 60.
West Africa is facing its most serious locust crisis for 15 years, with swarms moving rapidly across Algeria and Mauritania to countries such as Mali, Senegal, Niger and Gambia, many of whose inhabitants are subsistence farmers.
The United Nations warned on Thursday that new waves will wash over the region in the coming weeks, further disrupting the summer planting season and threatening vital food supplies.
Desert locust swarms contain up to 80 million insects per square km and can travel more than 130 km (80 miles) a day. They can devastate entire crop fields in minutes, with adult locusts munching their own weight, or about two grams, of food a day.
Some swarms have reached Chad, further to the east, and there is a risk of them arriving in Sudan's Darfur region, where fighting between Arab militias and Sudanese rebels has left 2.2 million people in urgent need of food, medicine and shelter.
Gambia has declared a state of emergency ahead of an expected invasion, while Senegal's President Abdoulaye Wade has cancelled his holiday and urged world leaders to declare war on the insects.
The French foreign ministry has sent a team of experts from agronomical research centre CIRAD to Mauritania, Senegal, Mali and Niger, all former French colonies. European donors have contributed two million euros to beef up an emergency fund run by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).
Ould Babah warned that more swarms could be expected in Nouakchott, whose residents are already making comparisons with the locust invasion of 1987-89, which was the worst in 30 years and sparked fears of famine.
That plague took $300 million and operations in 28 states to contain.
Ould Babah said the worst case scenario would be fighting locusts over an area of one million hectares in Mauritania alone, which he estimated would cost the country $20 million.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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