Locust Swarms Forecast for Northern Afghanistan

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, February 25, 2002 (ENS) - As if 22 years of war plus three years of drought and famine were not enough suffering for Afghanistan, a devastating plague of locusts is about to hatch out in the northern part of the country.

Rebecca Richards, spokesperson for the Office of the UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Afghanistan, told reporters last week that northern Afghanistan may be facing a locust problem in 2002 that could prove much worse than the locust infestations that hit the north over the last two years.

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Locusts can eat their own weight in food each day. (Photo courtesy EarthLife)
The current projected date for the hatching of this year's brood of these crop destroying pests is mid-March. Officials from the Afghanistan Agricultural Department, the United Nations, nongovernmental organizations, and Afghan farmers are deeply worried about the potential locust problem this year.

To combat this menace, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is taking the lead on a project called Control of Locust Infested Areas in northern Afghanistan. It is due to start within a few days and continue to June.

In 2000, Richards said, over 90,000 hectares of land were infested with egg pods of locusts in northern Afghanistan. Because the swarms of adults could not be adequately controlled in 2001 due to war, infested areas spread over 210,000 hectares (519,000 acres).

Parts of the northern province of Baghlan lost an estimated 40 percent of its crops last year due to locusts, and in some districts of Samangan crops were totally destroyed, she said.

Without effective intervention this year, the problem would be even more devastating than last year, UN agencies and non-governmental organizations predict.

Locusts have long been a problem in Afghanistan. Their laying grounds were mainly located in pastoral areas where damages to the grazing lands did not severely affect livestock moving to summer grazing areas, Richards explained.

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Northern Afghani men attend an FAO locust control training class in 1994. (Photo by M. Griffen courtesy FAO )
But in the last few years, due to the drought, the locusts have moved their breeding grounds from these more remote pasturelands, which did not supply enough food, closer to areas dedicated to crop production. This shift means that locusts have posed an increasing threat to food security in the north.

If not treated, over US$60 million worth of wheat alone could be lost in 2002, the FAO predicts.

Locusts are part of a large group of insects commonly called grasshoppers which have big hind legs for jumping. Locusts differ from grasshoppers in that they have the ability to change their behavior and habits and can migrate over large distances.

A locust adult can consume roughly its own weight in fresh food per day, that is about two grams every day, the FAO says. A very small part of an average swarm - or about one metric ton of locusts - eats the same amount of food in one day as about 10 elephants or 25 camels or 2,500 people.

Locusts can be eaten, and the UN World Food Programme reported that last year people in northern Afghanistan were surviving on locusts and grass. Locusts are usually stir-fried, roasted or boiled and eaten immediately or dried and eaten later.

As the the FAO is overall coordinator for the locust control program in Afghanistan, the agency's experts will work closely with the Afghan Department of Agriculture and with nongovernmental organizations who have agreed to raise cash, food and human resources.

Richards said combating the threat of locusts will be difficult this year because the UN, including the FAO, the aid community, and the Agriculture Department lost many assets in the looting following September 11.

"In the midst of wide-scale looting of resources, local staff of FAO in the north on their own initiative were able to hide some 380 varieties of wheat and 90 varieties of other crops, preserving the genetic heritage of years of research for the future by secreting them underground in safe places in different locations," she said. "These have now been recovered and are being used to conduct trials of the varieties in the north."