Mali is bracing for an invasion of locusts as unrest in north and west Africa hampers efforts to control the crop-ravaging insects. Locust sightings have been reported in northern Mali, where families are already hard-hit by conflict and food insecurity, and where equipment used to control the swarms has been looted by armed groups.
As desert locusts approach northern Mali and neighboring Niger, national experts in Mali, who normally work on mitigating the impact, are hamstrung by unrest and a lack of access and equipment.
As of June 8, the Food and Agriculture Organization - the U.N. agency that monitors locust movements - classified Mali as a zone where surveillance and control “must be undertaken” and where crops are threatened.
Oumar Traoré, head technician with Mali’s locust control center, which normally would carry out that surveillance and control, says most of the national center’s equipment was stocked in a warehouse in the northern town of Gao and everything was stolen when armed groups seized northern Mali.
When the groups swept into the region just over two months ago, they looted government buildings, hospitals, and the offices and warehouses of national and international aid organizations.
Most families in Mali’s extreme north depend on livestock, and locust swarms would destroy pastures that feed their animals.
Traoré says the worry now is that the insects could quickly advance farther south, where people live off farming.
The rain factor
As areas dry up, locusts move on and seek vegetation. Keith Cressman, the FAO’s senior locust forecasting officer, said sporadic rains in northern Niger and Mali could affect how the swarms behave.
"Of course not all areas have received these rains so there are areas in the north of both countries that are dry. So the locusts could overfly those areas and continue as far south as they can before they hit the southerly headwinds, Cressman explained, "but it could put them into the agricultural zones of the central parts of Mali and central and southern parts of Niger. The time they would be arriving would coincide with the planting of this year’s crops and we already know that in both countries [people] are very vulnerable this year to food insecurity because of last year’s poor harvest."
The U.N. World Food Program says that drought in the region has left millions of people hungry. The agency says the conflict in Mali has forced at least 300,000 people to flee, adding to the food crisis there and in surrounding countries.
The desert locust swarms threatening Mali and Niger are coming from Algeria and Libya to the north.
Cressman told VOA that normally locust control teams would be able to control the insects along the Algeria-Libya border, but given events over the past several months that has not been the case.
"Algeria made an estimate, saying that of the potential areas that are infested with desert locusts, the ground teams could only reach 15 percent of those areas, so that means 85 percent of the areas were unsurveyed and untreated," he said.
Cressman said the situation is likely similar on the Libyan side.
FAO says a small portion of an average swarm - about one ton of locusts - eats as much food in one day as 10 elephants or 2,500 people.