Locust invasions compound Arab region’s coronavirus woes

A man tries to catch locusts while standing on a rooftop as they swarm over the Yemeni capital Sanaa on July 28, 2019. (AFP/File Photo)
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Updated 12 August 2020

Locust invasions compound Arab region’s coronavirus woes

  • Swarms of locusts have invaded 23 countries across East Africa, Middle East and South Asia this year
  • The worst infestation of desert locusts in decades threatens livelihoods and food supplies of millions

DUBAI: Battling an unprecedented pandemic that has infected more than 12 million people globally, countries in the Middle East and South Asia find themselves saddled with more bad luck.

Swarms of locusts have invaded 23 countries across East Africa, the Middle East and South Asia, including the UAE, Saudi Arabia and neighboring countries, with India becoming the latest victim.

According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the swarms of desert locusts represent the worst infestation for 25 years in Ethiopia and Somalia, 26 years in India and 70 years in Kenya.

The World Bank believes this single outbreak of locusts could cover 20 percent of the Earth’s landmass if it reaches plague levels.

It is easy to underestimate the seriousness of the locust infestation at a time when people are grappling with a global economic turndown and rising joblessness in the wake of COVID-19. However, as these grasshoppers make their way around the region, they are mounting a serious attack on the world’s harvests and food supplies.

In the Arabian Peninsula, locust swarms have swept over farms in central, southern and eastern parts of Yemen. Residents and farmers in Marib, Hadramout, Mahra and Abyan say billions of locusts have invaded farms, cities and villages, devouring seasonal crops such as dates and causing heavy losses.

Images and videos posted on social media in recent days show swarms of locusts laying waste to lemon farms in Marib and dates and alfalfa farms in Hadramout.

In February, large groups of locusts were seen in farms and rural areas in Saudi Arabia and Yemen, after traveling from the sub-Saharan African region as well as neighboring countries such as Oman and India.

Four of Saudi Arabia’s main agricultural areas in Riyadh, Qassim, Hail and the Eastern Province were affected by the invasion, as insects ravaged crops in Jazan, Asir, Al-Baha, Al-Leith, Qunfodah and Makkah.



* Belong to Acrididae family of grasshoppers.

* Most destructive migratory pest in the world.

* Small swarm can comprise 80 million grasshoppers and consume amount of food that 35,000 people would in a day.

* Desert locust eats roughly its own weight (2 gm) in food each day.

Mohammad Al-Shammrani, director of combating locusts and plagues at the Ministry of Environment, Agriculture and Water in Saudi Arabia, had previously told Arab News that the locusts came from East Africa.

“The Kingdom has been combating locusts on a daily basis since the beginning of January, successfully exterminating the first generation of the insect’s invasion,” he said.

While specialized teams are constantly monitoring the movement of swarms into the Kingdom, the UAE has also been taking precautions to protect its farms.

The Abu Dhabi Agriculture and Food Safety Authority reported in mid-February that it had exterminated small gatherings of locusts using pesticides in a six square-kilometer area of farmland on Dalma island.

The agency has revised its level of preparedness to confront any new group of desert locusts coming from the “Arabian Peninsula and the Red Sea coasts.”


READ MORE: Locust invasion in Yemen stokes food insecurity fears

Saudi specialist teams to fight locust invasion

Dubai Municipality reassures residents after swarms of locust spotted, ‘situation under control’


Oman reported a locust attack in early February as millions of insects infested multiple governorates in the country. Authorities deployed 37 teams at South Al-Sharqiyah, Al-Wusta and Muscat to destroy the swarms and protect the crop fields. However, the locusts quickly made a comeback in May.

“The locust outbreaks are linked to more than normal rains in sub-Saharan Africa, Arabian Peninsula and the Thar desert in Pakistan and India as the swarms follow the wind currents,” Hari Chand Sharma, an Indian entomologist and agricultural scientist, told Arab News.

Many may question the real impact of locusts, but the answer is simple: The insects are extremely dangerous when traveling in swarms.

The desert locust, which belongs to a family of grasshoppers called Acrididae, is considered the most destructive migratory pest in the world. They are highly mobile and can form swarms containing millions of locusts, leading to devastating impacts on crops, pasture and fodder.

According to the World Bank, a small swarm (one square kilometer) can comprise 80 million locusts and consume the same amount of food that 35,000 people would in a day. Additionally, a large swarm can eat up to 1.8 million metric tons of green vegetation, equivalent to the amount of food required for 81 million people.

While they do not attack humans and animals or spread disease, locusts breed very fast. A single female locust can lay pods containing 80 to 150 eggs.

Sharma believes that during this year’s monsoon season, the swarms will largely be confined to India and Pakistan or may move to Nepal. “The locust outbreak was triggered by excessive summer rains in Africa and heavy winter rains in Asia,” he told Arab News.

According to Sharma, the locust outbreak originated in the eastern part of sub-Saharan Africa (Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Northern Kenya). “From there the locusts moved to the Arabian Peninsula, Iran, Afghanistan and western Pakistan. The swarms from these areas then invaded Sindh in Pakistan and Rajasthan in India (Thar desert) in March. In June, the swarms moved to central and northern parts of India,” he said.

In June, swarms of locusts moved into India’s National Capital Region, ravaging sugarcane fields and raising the specter of major losses for the country’s agriculture sector.

Despite efforts to douse crops with pesticides, the Indian government has struggled to contain the worst locust assault in decades with the monsoon season around the corner promising more destruction. In 2003, the damage to crops and trees by locusts was estimated to be more than $2.5 million, Sharma said.

He believes the attack is not yet over. “The populations that multiply in southern Asia will move to the Arabian Peninsula and then to Africa in the spring and winter,” Sharman said.

He underscored the need for greater attentiveness from affected countries to the multiplication of the grasshoppers in desert areas. “It is important to undertake timely control operations when the insects are without wings (nymphal stage) in the initial stages,” he told Arab News.

“During this period, to control the pest, the Locust Warning Organization under the FAO and government agencies should use microbial agents such as the fungus Metarhizium, the protozoa Nosema locustae and insecticides, which will be least disruptive to the environment.”

The World Bank Group has approved a $500 million program to provide flexible support to affected countries in Africa and the Middle East. Without broad-scale efforts to control a rapidly evolving crisis, the bank puts a conservative estimates of losses — including for staple crops, livestock production and asset damage — at $8.5 billion for countries in the wider East Africa region, Djibouti and Yemen.

A world contending with the havoc wrought by an invisible virus may soon find itself in an escalating battle with a more visible but no less ruthless invader.


Twitter: @jumana_khamis


Streets before suits: US envoy vists Beirut’s ‘real’ rescue hub

Updated 41 min 39 sec ago

Streets before suits: US envoy vists Beirut’s ‘real’ rescue hub

  • Hale’s visit to the volunteer hub in the Gemmayzeh district came days after Macron took a tour of the same street last week
  • Students and young professionals have ditched classes and day jobs to save lives and provide emergency support

BEIRUT: Arriving in Lebanon after last week’s deadly Beirut blast, US envoy David Hale bypassed politicians to head straight to a hard-hit neighborhood where young volunteers are helping people abandoned by their state.
At the volunteer hub dubbed the “Base Camp,” there is a “focus on getting things done,” Hale told a press conference after his tour.
He contrasted the hive of activity to the “dysfunctional governance and empty promises” of Lebanon’s political leaders, who face public outrage over the explosion of a vast stock of ammonium nitrate stored for years at Beirut’s port.
Volunteer efforts “could not only be tapped to rebuild Beirut but (also) to undertake necessary reforms that will bring the kind of transformation that is necessary for Lebanon,” Hale said.
In the wake of the August 4 explosion of a the huge chemical store that laid waste to whole Beirut neighborhoods, students and young professionals have ditched classes and day jobs to save lives, provide emergency support and start to rebuild.
Hale’s visit to the volunteer hub in the blast-hit Gemmayzeh district came days after French President Emmanuel Macron took a tour of the same street last Thursday, as well as meeting Lebanese leaders.
But while Macron was welcomed as a savior, it was clear that the heroes of the moment were the volunteers.
“I don’t know why (Hale) would do that second step and go to meet politicians,” said Wassim Bou Malham, 33, who leads a database management team at the Base Camp.
“The aid is happening here, the data collection is happening here, the cleaning is happening here, the reconstruction is happening here,” he told AFP.
Wearing face masks and neon vests, volunteers sounded like international experts as they explained how they were cleaning up their government’s mess.
In fluent English, they described 3D mapping operations, data collection and relief efforts organized since the cataclysmic blast.
Bou Malham, who spoke with Hale during the tour, is not a data expert but picked up useful experience managing client databases for two of Beirut’s biggest nightclubs.
After the blast tore through the city, wounding 6,500 people and displacing 300,000 from their homes, his skills became vital for the aid effort.
The digitised database developed by Bou Malham and his team of volunteers is now critical for sorting and delivering aid to thousands of blast survivors.
“We haven’t seen any government official or representative actually come in here and ask us if we need anything,” he said.
“It’s so funny that David Hale is the first.”
It is not only in the Base Camp that the state has been thin on the ground.
In the first hours after the explosion, civil defense teams were vastly outnumbered by young volunteers flooding the streets to help.
By the next day, the latter had set up a camp where they offered food, medicine, temporary shelter and repair services to thousands of blast victims, in partnership with several non-governmental groups.
Operations have continued to expand since.
A Base Camp relief hotline received more than 200 calls in the first two hours. Volunteers have assessed the damage to around 1,200 homes and installed at least 600 wooden doors.
“The work is going to speak for itself,” said Bushra, a 37-year-old volunteer.
Simmering anger against Lebanon’s leaders has flared since the blast, which appears to have been caused by years of state corruption and negligence.
With 171 people dead, it is widely seen as the most tragic manifestation yet of the rot at the core of the country’s political system.
Western donors too are fed up with Lebanon’s barons, who have for years resisted reforms demanded by the international community.
In a joint statement released after an international donor conference organized by France in the wake of the disaster, world leaders called for aid to be delivered directly to the Lebanese people.
USAID acting administrator, John Barsa, said at the time that American help “is absolutely not going to the government.”
USAID “will increase its financial support to civil society groups in Lebanon by 30 percent to $6.627 million,” Barsa said in a press briefing on Thursday.
At the volunteer camp in Gemmayzeh, it was clear that funding would be put to good use.
Ziad Al-Zein, arrives before volunteers start their shifts at 9:00 am to ensure the camp is clean and secure.
The 33-year-old was among the first groups of volunteers clearing debris in Gemmayzeh.
“We are not speacialists in crisis management or catastophe management. We are learning things as we go,” he said.
“There is no state,” he added. “We will not abandon our fellow Lebanese in these conditions.”