DAKAR (AlertNet) – Drought-stricken families counting on a better harvest in Africa's Sahel region this year could see their hopes devastated by an invasion of locusts, an official of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has warned.
"This invasion from Algeria and Libya is worrying because it coincides with the planting of this season's crops in the Sahel where people are already vulnerable and they cannot take any other disruption of their planting cycle," said Keith Cressman, FAO senior locust forecasting officer.
The United Nations says about 18 million people are threatened by an unfolding hunger crisis across eight countries in West Africa due to a combination of drought, failed crops, high food prices and conflict in the Sahel region – a semi-arid belt of land south of the Sahara desert.
Croplands in Mali, Niger and Chad are at an imminent risk from desert locust swarms following field reports that groups of locusts arriving from infestations further north have already surfaced in northern Niger from the Mali border to the Chad border, Cressman said.
In late March, the FAO said locust swarms could arrive in Niger and Mali by June in an early warning intended to give the countries time to have response teams and equipment ready to tackle the predicted infestation.
However, locust-control efforts in the region have been hindered by conflict in Mali, insecurity caused by armed groups including Al Qaeda's north African wing (AQMI) and the proliferation of arms after the conflict in Libya that led to the ousting of the country's long-serving leader Muammar Gaddafi, experts say.
"This means that in the case of Niger the (response) teams in the north are going to be accompanied by the army to ensure their safety but in case of northern Mali, I don't think the teams would be able to access that area at all," Cressman told AlertNet by phone from Rome.
Mali is practically split in two after violence erupted in mid-January when Tuareg-led rebels of the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad launched a bid to create an independent state in the desert north of Mali.
Taking advantage of the chaos after the March 22 coup in the capital Bamako, a mix of separatist and Islamist rebels seized the northern two-thirds of the country in early April.
Mali's national locust centre is based in the capital Bamako and they used to have a centre in Gao in the north, but with the political situation that centre is no longer functional, Cressman added.
"If the locusts stay and breed unperturbed in these insecure areas of north Mali, then we could be facing a big problem by next October," he warned.
"If the locusts move into the south (of Mali and Niger) then they would be more manageable but of course, they would be threatening the agricultural areas of those countries at that point – which is also a worry," Cressman added.
He said Algeria and Libya would have been able to control most of their local swarms and prevent their movement towards the south, but insecurity along both sides of the Algerian-
Libyan border is getting in the way of full access by local teams and by FAO experts who need to assess the situation.
The FAO Commission for Controlling the Desert Locust in the Western Region (CLCPRO) has provided $300,000 in funding to tackle locust infestations in Libya, and FAO has added an additional $400,000 to address the problem.