LOCUST INVASION! ….Region needs US$4m to fight plague

By Sifelani Tsiko

Countries in east, central and southern Africa need over US$4 million to battle a locust plague  that is threatening the food security of the majority of people who depend on agriculture for survival, a senior official of the International Red Locust Control Organisation for Central and Southern Africa (IRLCO – CSA) says.

Moses Okhoba, director of the locust prevention agency, told Zimpapers Syndication on the side-lines of a UN Food and Agriculture Organisation emergency technical meeting held last week to tackle an outbreak of crop-eating insects sweeping across several African countries, that underfunding of locust management programmes was threatening the region’s major staple crop – maize.

“We need US$4 million to tackle the problem,” he said. “Frontlines (the worst affected) states are carrying the major burden and protecting the entire region. We need more resources to get a spray aircraft and implement locust control programmes.”

Apart from the fall armyworm and the African armyworm, six IRLCO – CSA member states – Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe also faced outbreaks of locusts, dampening prospects of a good harvest particularly for countries in southern Africa emerging from one of the worst droughts in years.

“In 2008, most countries in the region were hit hard by a plague of locust – from Buzi in Mozambique to Harare and down south in Lesotho. These insects know no boundaries and we need to work together to curb further outbreaks.”

The IRLCO-CSA also warns that the region faces a potential locust outbreak following observed increases in population of the pests in its traditional breeding areas in Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia, Mozambique and Zimbabwe.

The main locust types include the brown locust, African migratory locust, Malagasy migratory locust and the red locust.

“Red locust[s] have the potential to spread exclusively across the region,” said Okhoba. “The African migratory locust is still active and poses a threat to irrigated crops and countries should be on the lookout for this pest.”

He said Madagascar was the hardest hit and had spent more than US$38 million to control the spread of the red locust.

“We have to control them before they fledge and fly as swarms. We need resources and equipment to control locusts which are threatening our region’s fragile food security situation. It’s particularly frightening now, when we are just emerging from the worst El Nino-induced drought.”

Swarms consist of 40 million insects, each consuming its weight of two grammes, and can consume up to 80 million tonnes of plants a day, according to IRLCO – CSA.

If the swarms feed exclusively on crops, they could deprive 123,077 people of food in one day, the locust agency says.

Pest management has pushed up the cost of production in most affected countries.

Underfunding and poor contribution from IRLCO-CSA member states has affected locust management programmes.

“We need to mobilise some resources on our own before donors come,” Okhoba said. “We live in a region where 80 percent of the population lives on agriculture, so there could be a huge humanitarian crisis if we do not move quickly to fight the locusts.”

The impact of the crop-destroying insects has been severe in Zambia, Mozambique, Malawi and Tanzania. In January 2017, outbreaks of both red locusts and African migratory locusts were reported in the Kafue floodplains, in southern Zambia.

IRLCO-CSA says the locusts damaged over 10,000 hectare (ha) which included 1,600ha of maize. Low to medium density hoppers were also detected in 9,000ha grassland between maize fields over the same period.

In February 2014, the African migratory locust invaded 20,000ha of cropland in the same area causing untold hardships for people who depend heavily on rain-fed agriculture.

Okhoba said his organisation needed US$4 million to secure a helicopter, spray camps and motorised control units to fight the plague of locust.

Outbreaks were also reported in the Ikuu-Katavi plains, North and Southern Rukwa and Malagasi Basin in Tanzania, Lake Chilwa/Lake Chiuta plains shared by Malawi and Mozambique, Buzi-Gorongosa plains, Dimba plains in Mozambique.

“We don’t have the equipment to cover all these areas,” Okhoba said. “We need boats to navigate swampy areas like they have in the US. We need to gain access to areas that cannot be reached easily. “We need the equipment and resources. Many of our countries hardly have all the necessary equipment. We have less than six vehicle-mounted sprayers in the whole region and this is a huge challenge.

“If we have a serious outbreak, how much equipment do we have to deal with this problem?”

The IRLCO-CSA official said the region needs a dedicated aircraft to fight the locust plague.

“An aircraft costs about US$1 million and yet we have invested over US$6 billion on agriculture as a region,” he said. “We need to act now. We have to prevent and not react. Livelihoods are being lost because of lack of disaster preparedness.

“We just hope that we will get the necessary support to enable us to undertake control and prevention measures to curb the further spread of locusts.”

Plant disease experts say a locust infestation can produce a new generation almost every two months, with each insect consuming roughly its own weight – about two grammes – in vegetation daily.

When swarming, they can cover up to 100km a day. The insects undergo behavioural, ecological and physiological transformation after their population density passes a tipping point: their body chemistry changes and individual locusts begin to concentrate and act as a synchronised group moving out en masse to devour available food sources, experts further said. The frontline states are already facing high rates of hunger and malnutrition in the poorest regions after a severe drought swept across the entire southern African region.

Experts warn that if the plague of locust affecting some parts of the region is unchecked, the situation could significantly worsen as a result.

More than 60 percent of the region’s maize crop was at risk and the swarms could also consume most green vegetation that may serve as pasture for livestock, according to reports from the FAO organised meeting.

Okhoba said emergency funds were needed to support full-scale spraying campaigns particularly now when crops were reaching maturity stage.

More resources, he said, were required for the long-term combating of the locusts.

Funds would also help large-scale aerial operations and the spraying of thousands of hectares in case of a full-blown locust outbreak.

“In Africa, most of the times there is a cruel twist, particularly when we are emerging from a severe drought,” said Okhoba.

“With good rains this season, it is a promising season for our crops. But prospects of a good harvest after a very bad drought also often means a potential locust outbreak which could devastate the entire harvest and affect the livelihoods of thousands of our farmers.”

Locust plagues regularly occur across much of Africa and lack of resources has hampered efforts to calculate the exact size of plagues, to conduct accurate field surveys and population models in outbreak zones.

Controlling the swarms with insecticide has proven costly for most African governments apart from the impact of chemicals of fragile ecosystems, livelihoods and the associated rise in the cost of production.

“The current status of emerging transboundary pests is a cause for concern and they are impacting negatively on our agricultural systems,” Rose Njeru, a plant health expert.

“It has severe implications on food and nutritional security and livelihoods, production cost, food safety and public health, trade and market access, environment, biodiversity and ecosystems.”

Sina Luchen, a regional agronomist for FAO sub-regional office says prevention and response mechanism for transboundary pests and diseases have largely been hampered by a slow flow of information exchange between countries in the region, political, legal and other considerations.

In addition, he said, limitations on availability and access to appropriate pest diagnostic and identification services and facilities, the ‘silo’ phenomena and lack of financial resources have all compounded the situation.

“Pests do not use passports, we use passports and we need to network more,” he says. “If we don’t, we won’t go far.” – Zimpapers Syndication

February 2017
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