Locust invasion threatens MENA crops

If officials are unsuccessful in quickly rooting out the plague, there is fear that it could trigger a dangerous feedback loop.
Sunday 08/03/2020
A Kuwaiti man shows a bag full of locusts at a market in Al-Rai, north-west of Kuwait City, January 25. (AFP)
Growing concern. A Kuwaiti man shows a bag full of locusts at a market in Al-Rai, north-west of Kuwait City, January 25. (AFP)

LONDON - Swarms of locusts swept into the Middle East and North Africa, posing serious danger to crops and risking a crippling food shortage.

High winds pushed the locusts into the region from the Horn of Africa after the insects destroyed crops in Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia and South Sudan. The swarm was reported to have reached Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Bahrain, Jordan, Oman, Kuwait and Iran. Saudi Arabia and Bahrain have been hit the hardest.

Locusts are a species of grasshoppers that are usually solitary but turn into nomadic, ravenous crop-damaging pests when lacking proper vegetation.

The desert locust of the Middle East, Africa and Asia is considered among the world’s most dangerous. A swarm of a single square kilometre can destroy 35,000 people’s worth of food in one day. Each square kilometre of the species can total 150 million locusts, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation said.

Locust invasions have been associated with danger and plagues since ancient Egyptian times. Referenced in the Quran, the Bible and Homer’s “Iliad,” locusts have been known to carry disease, damage crops, contribute to famine and drive migration.

The latest outbreak of locusts in the Gulf region follows an outbreak in 2019, when hordes of pests spread across cities in Saudi Arabia, including Riyadh, Jazan, Mecca and Qassim.

This year, locusts invaded four of Saudi Arabia’s key agricultural areas: Riyadh, Qassim, Ha’il and the Eastern Province. Authorities attempted to thwart the devastation by doubling daily insecticide applications.

Saudi Arabia is coordinating its response with neighbouring Kuwait, which is highly dependent on farmland to meet its food needs. The locust threat is of great concern to Bahrain, too, where the swarm invaded the country in such great numbers that it blackened the sky over a major highway, halting traffic.

Analysts said they were concerned that the damage was only beginning. Locusts have a 3-month reproduction cycle, meaning that a new generation could appear just as new crops begin to sprout.

Global food and agriculture officials said there has not been a similar locust outbreak in modern times but that there was time to avoid the worst.

“This is a scourge of biblical proportions,” said a statement by Qu Dongyu, director-general of the Food and Agriculture Organisation; Mark Lowcock, UN emergency relief coordinator; and David Beasley, executive director of the World Food Programme. “Yet, as ancient as this scourge is, its scale today is unprecedented in modern times.”

“Acting now to avert a food crisis is a more humane, effective and cost-efficient approach than responding to the aftermath of disaster,” added the statement. “The math is clear, as is our moral obligation: Pay a little now or pay a lot more later.”

If officials are unsuccessful in quickly rooting out the plague, there is fear that it could trigger a dangerous feedback loop, with less available vegetation causing the locusts to act even more aggressively and cause greater damage.

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