“The presence of recently discovered Desert Locust infestations in Yemen, where conflict is severely hampering control operations, poses a potential threat to crops in the region,” the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has warned.
On 12 April the FAO also urged neighbouring countries such as Saudi Arabia, Oman and Iran, to mobilise survey and control teams and to take all necessary measures to prevent the destructive insects from reaching breeding areas situated in their respective territories.
The desert locust threat poses high risks not only to the Southern region of the Gulf, but also to North of Africa, FAO said and warned that strict vigilance is also required in Morocco and Algeria, especially in areas south of the Atlas Mountains, which could become possible breeding grounds for Desert Locust that have gathered in parts of the Western Sahara, Morocco and Mauritania.
Climate change appears among the major causes of the destructive plague, as groups of juvenile wingless hoppers and adults as well as hopper bands and at least one swarm formed on the southern coast of Yemen in March where heavy rains associated with tropical cyclones Chapala and Megh fell in November 2015.
“The extent of current Desert Locust breeding in Yemen is not fully known since survey teams are unable to access most areas. However, as vegetation dries out along the coast, more groups, bands and small swarms are likely to form,” said Keith Cressman, FAO Senior Locust Forecasting Officer.
Cressman noted that a moderate risk exists that Desert Locusts will move into the interior of southern Yemen, perhaps reaching spring breeding areas in the interior of central Saudi Arabia and northern Oman.
There is a possibility that this movement could continue to the United Arab Emirates where a few small swarms may appear and transit through the country before arriving in areas of recent rainfall in southeast Iran.
For its part, the Cairo-based FAO Regional office for the Middle East and North of Africa reported that the organisation is currently assisting technical teams from Yemen’s Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation in conducting field survey and control operations in infested coastal areas.
As for the North of Africa, the UN agency has also warned that in the North Western region, small groups and perhaps a few small swarms could find suitable breeding areas in Morocco, Mauritania, and Algeria. In addition, some small-scale Desert Locust breeding is likely to occur in South Western Libya, but numbers should remain low.
Elsewhere, the situation remains calm with only low numbers of adults present in northern Mali and Niger, South West Libya, southeast Egypt and North East Oman.
A Force of Nature?
Desert Locust hoppers can form vast ground-based bands. These can eventually turn into adult locust swarms, which, numbering in the tens of millions can fly up to 150 km a day with the wind.
Female locusts can lay 300 eggs within their lifetime while an adult insect can consume roughly its own weight in fresh food per day — about two grams every day.
A very small swarm eats the same amount of food in one day as about 35,000 people and the devastating impact locusts can have on crops poses a major threat to food security, especially in already vulnerable areas.
Locust monitoring, early warning and preventive control measures are believed to have played an important role in the decline in the frequency and duration of plagues since the 1960s; however, today climate change is leading to more frequent, unpredictable and extreme weather and poses fresh challenges on how to monitor and respond to locust activity.
FAO operates a Desert Locust Information Service that receives data from locust-affected countries. This information is regularly analysed together with weather and habitat data and satellite imagery in order to assess the current locust situation, provide forecasts up to six weeks in advance and if required issue warnings and alerts.
It also undertakes field assessment missions and coordinates survey and control operations as well as assistance during locust emergencies. Its three regional locust commissions provide regular training and strengthen national capacities in survey, control and planning.
A Disastrous Year
2015 was a disastrous year for Yemen, which is home to around 27 million people living over an area of more than 528,000 km2. Already the Arabian Peninsula’s poorest country, the rise of the Houthi insurgency and Saudi Arabian-led airstrikes intended to oust them from power led to a full-blown humanitarian disaster.
And then in November, coastal regions were hit by the most powerful storm in decades, causing displacement and flooding.
Services are the largest economic sector in Yemen (61.4 per cent of Gross Domestic Product-GDP), followed by the industrial sector (30.9 per cent), and agriculture (7.7 per cent). Of these, petroleum production represents around 25 per cent of GDP and 63 per cent of the State revenue.
In recent decade, agriculture represented between 18–27% of the GDP, but this percentage has been shrinking due to emigration of rural labour, among others. Main agricultural commodities produced in Yemen include grain, vegetables, fruits, pulses, gat, coffee, cotton, dairy products, fish, livestock (sheep, goats, cattle, camels), and poultry.
Nevertheless, most Yemenis are employed in agriculture. Sorghum is the most common crop. Cotton and many fruit trees are also grown, with `mangoes being the most valuable.
Regarding the on-going humanitarian crisis, one year on into the conflict in Yemen, tens of thousands of Yemenis have been killed or injured, one in 10 are displaced and nearly the entire population is in urgent need of aid, the top UN humanitarian official in the country stated on 22 March 2016.
“It has been a terrible year for Yemen, during which a war peppered with airstrikes, shelling and violence had raged on in the already impoverished country,” added Jamie McGoldrick, Humanitarian Coordinator in Yemen.
Shelling of ports and airports, resulting in blockades and congestion, is one of the drivers of the humanitarian crisis, McGoldrick said, noting that health workers cannot reach patients and some 90 per cent of the food has to be imported.
“The country had extremely high levels of poverty before the war, and currently, the war has escalated, in an already fragile environment,” said the aid official.
Some 6,400 people have been killed in the past year, half of them civilians, and more than 30,000 are injured, with 2.5 million people displaced, according to figures from the UN World Health Organization (WHO). And more than 20 million people, or 80 per cent of the population, require some form of aid – about 14 million people in need of food and even more in need of water or sanitation.
The UN has appealed for 1.8 billion dollars for food, water, health care and shelter and protection issues, but only 12 per cent has been funded so far.
Bettina Luescher, senior communications officer for the World Food Programme (WFP) recently said in Geneva that shortages have forced the agency to cut rations to 75 per cent of a full ratio so that enough people could eat. “Yemen should not be forgotten, with all the attention focused on the Syria crisis,” she said.