Yemen braces for locust ‘plague’

Copyright: Panos/ Dieter Telemans

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  • Many juvenile locusts have matured into flying adults
  • Presence of vital honeybees limits insecticide control efforts
  • Any outbreak could go on to hit Oman, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Iran

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Yemen is bracing itself for a “locust plague” that scientists are unable to stop due to fears that any intervention would also kill bees that are vital to its economy.

The country’s Desert Locust Control Centre issued a warning on 18 April that many desert locusts in the country had reached their flying adult phase, while the remaining juveniles could do likewise in a matter of weeks.

The centre says control efforts this month, especially in the southern coastal province of Shabwah, have largely failed. Yemen is already struggling under the weight of civil war, which has made many affected areas unsafe.

“The intervention process to control locusts through insecticide spraying was very difficult due to a number of obstacles, the most important of which were the security aspect and the presence of beehives,” says Ahmed Al-Eryani, a spokesman for the centre. This is because pesticide spraying is likely to kill the bee populations crucial to the region’s agriculture and honey production, he explains.

“The expected locust plague portends a true disaster which will negatively affect food security in all districts of Yemen and may extend beyond its borders.”

Salah Hajj, FAO 

Yemen’s civil war has made it difficult for scientists to reach some areas to carry out regular monitoring and control efforts. As a result, teams have been unable to kill substantial amounts of juvenile locusts to prevent them becoming adults, the centre says.

The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has warned that the locust outbreak threatens the country’s farming. It added that the locusts could reach neighbouring countries, including Oman and Saudi Arabia, and even the United Arab Emirates and Iran.

Adult desert locusts can withstand extreme heat and drought, and travel up to 150 kilometres a day.

Swarms inflict heavy losses on crops. According to the FAO, even a small swarm — which might cover one square kilometre and contain about 40 million locusts — can eat as much food in a day as 35,000 people.

“The expected locust plague portends a true disaster which will negatively affect food security in all districts of Yemen and may extend beyond its borders,” says Salah Hajj, the FAO’s representative in Yemen.

Al-Eryani says: “But in light of the current security and financial challenges, we cannot do anything about it at the appropriate time.”

The FAO started a last-minute eradication effort last week, but Al-Eryani says this has come too late. “It is difficult to control flying swarms,” he explains.

According to the FAO, the outbreak was caused by an unusual abundance of rain at the end of last year. This meant the locusts had plenty of plants to feed on, encouraging them to breed and lay eggs.

Although the extent of the outbreak is currently uncertain, especially in Al-Jawf, Hadhramaut and Marib provinces, scientists have estimated the scale of the problem based on their knowledge of each area’s environment and its suitability for locust breeding.

But Al-Eryani confirms that there is limited access to locust habitats because of the ongoing conflict jeopardises hopes of dealing with this outbreak.

“Devastating swarms could form undetected in conflict areas and, once they are widespread, it is impossible to control them,” he says.

This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Middle East & North Africa desk.