A desert locust swarm has been destroying crops across the Middle East and Africa since 2018.
Two cyclones, Mekunu and Luban, hit the Arabian Peninsula in 2018, causing unusual amounts of rainfall in the deserts of Yemen, Oman, and Somalia. The heat and moisture then led to vegetation, usually not present, appearing in the desert. This vegetation is the perfect breeding ground for desert locusts.
Locusts breed and consume on an extraordinary level; able to consume their own body weight in food each day, a swarm can be anywhere between 40 million and 80 million individuals over an area of less than one square kilometre to hundreds of kilometres.
One square kilometre of locust swarm can consume the equivalent in food of roughly 35,000 people. In Rub' al Khali, or the Empty Quarter, three generations of breeding occurred in the Southern Arabian Peninsula. Mostly undetected in the early stages, the locusts then spread to Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Iran. In the latter two countries, control operations were less successful leading to the formation of swarms.
Locusts breed and consume on an extraordinary level; able to consume their own body weight in food each day
Keith Cressman, a Senior Locust Forecasting Officer from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), told Al Bawaba that the weather “bought so much rain to those areas which never get rain and it became green for about 9 months. The ground was moist, and the locusts took to those areas. The locust population grew by about 8000x in those areas.”
The locust population grew by about 8000x in those areas
Yemen is already facing a humanitarian crisis of a scale unknown to most people outside of the country. Half of the healthcare facilities are not operational and cases of Covid-19 have put further pressure on an already battle-fatigued and traumatised society. A UN report from late May said that there have been some reports that loud noises can help to disperse locust swarms but according to Keith Cressman this is “nonsense.” He says that it can “help to scare them away but it just pushes the problem to your neighbours.”
But there are some repercussions to the idea that loud noises can get rid of locust swarms. “When you have these loud sounds the locusts scatter so they’re no longer a very good target for the control teams, so we are trying to encourage people to not play loud music, bang pots and pans or beep car horns or shoot them with bullets. None of that works,” says Cressman.
Natural fungus has been developed which is more environmentally safe. Other pesticides are used by control teams but are restricted because of the adverse effects they can have on the wider environment. One of the main problems when operating in Yemen, according to Cressman, is the insecurity in the country. But another, he says, is that Yemen has a thriving honey industry. “It’s one of the world’s best sources of honey. So, beekeepers know that chemical pesticides disrupt their beekeeping, and all the bee-keepers have Kalashnikovs, so it’s a rather dicey place to do chemical control.
“It’s one of the world’s best sources of honey. So, beekeepers know that chemical pesticides disrupt their beekeeping, and all the bee-keepers have Kalashnikovs, so it’s a rather dicey place to do chemical control.
Yemen is one of the places where bio-pesticides would work well,” Cressman says. There are some suggestions that the numbers of locust swarms are dropping in Yemen. However, this is down to the inherent difficulty in assessing the situation on the ground. There are huge difficulties in accessing the areas that are affected, either because of poor transport connections or the effects of civil war on the country have increased risks to international agencies and communications.
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