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.

FASTFACTS

Locusts

* 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.”

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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’

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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.

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Twitter: @jumana_khamis

 


US accuses Syria of delaying constitution ahead of election

Updated 29 October 2020

US accuses Syria of delaying constitution ahead of election

  • It calls for a Syrian-led political process starting with the establishment of a transitional governing body

NEW YORK: The US and several Western allies on Tuesday accused the Syrian regime of deliberately delaying the drafting of a new constitution to waste time until presidential elections in 2021, and avoid UN-supervised voting as called for by the UN Security Council.

US Deputy Ambassador Richard Mills urged the Security Council to “do everything in its power” to prevent Bashar Assad regime from blocking agreement on a new constitution in 2020. The Trump administration believes Assad’s hope is to “invalidate the work” of UN special envoy Geir Pedersen who has been trying to spearhead action on a constitution, and the council’s call for a political transition.

The Security Council resolution adopted in December 2015 unanimously endorsed a road map to peace in Syria that was approved in Geneva on June 30, 2012 by representatives of the UN, Arab League, EU, Turkey and all five permanent Security Council members — the US, Russia, China, France and Britain.

It calls for a Syrian-led political process starting with the establishment of a transitional governing body, followed by the drafting of a new constitution and ending with UN-supervised elections. The resolution says the free and fair elections should meet “the highest international standards” of transparency and accountability, with all Syrians — including members of the diaspora — eligible to participate.

At a Russian-hosted Syrian peace conference in January 2018, an agreement was reached to form a 150-member committee to draft a new constitution. That took until September 2019, and since then only three meetings have been held with little progress.

Pedersen, the UN envoy, told the Security Council on Tuesday he was unable to convene a fourth meeting in October because the government wouldn’t accept a compromise agenda which the opposition agreed to. During his just concluded visit to Damascus, he said there was “some valuable narrowing of the differences” that could enable consensus on agendas for the next two meetings.

“If we are able to find agreement in the next two days, it should be possible to meet in Geneva sometime in the month of November,” Pedersen said, dropping the Nov. 23 date in his prepared speech.

Mills, the US envoy, urged Pedersen “to take any measures he thinks are appropriate to facilitate the parties’ efforts ... and also to identify to the council who is blocking progress.”

“Syria is wholly unprepared to carry out elections in a free, fair and transparent manner that would include the participation of the Syrian diaspora,” Mills said. “This is why we need the constitutional committee to work, and why we need the UN to accelerate its planning to ensure Syria’s upcoming elections are credible.”

German Ambassador Christoph Heusgen called Assad’s “delaying and obstruction tactics” on the constitutional committee’s work “just detestable.”

He said Russia, Syria’s most important ally, “should finally use its influence by, for instance, just cutting military aid and stopping its support, so that the Syrian regime finally plays ball.”

Syria’s tactics are clear, Heusgen said. “They want to waste time until the presidential elections in 2021. The regime should not have any illusions. The elections will not be recognized if they are held under the present circumstances.”

French Ambassador Nicolas De Riviere also criticized Assad’s “refusal to engage in good faith” and called for preparations to begin for UN-supervised elections that include the diaspora. France won’t recognize results that don’t comply with these provisions, he said, stressing: “We will not be fooled by the regime’s attempts to legitimize itself.”

Russia’s ambassador, Vassily Nebenzia, made no mention of the April presidential election and countered that Syrians must have “the opportunity to negotiate without interference from the outside.”

“The work of the constitutional committee should not be subject to any deadlines,” he said, expressing hope that Pedersen’s mediation will enable the committee’s work to continue “in line with the agenda agreed by the Syrians.”

Russia also sparred with Western ambassadors over its veto threats that led to the closure of two border crossings to deliver aid to Syria — one in the northeast and one in the northwest — leaving only one crossing to Idlib in the northwest.

The US, Germany, France, Britain, Belgium and others criticized the border crossing closures.

UN humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock told the council that Syrian government deliveries across conflict lines to the northeast are “not delivering at the scale or frequency required to meet the current health needs.” He said one hospital received only 450 gowns in April, and another received nothing for its maternity wing.

Lowcock also said “the situation of families across Syria is truly desperate,” citing food prices more than 90 percent higher than six months ago.

Russia’s Nebenzia responded, noting “with satisfaction the progress in UN humanitarian deliveries from inside Syria including through cross-line routes,” saying this “proves” the government is providing aid to people including in areas not under its control.