Locust swarms pose new threat to Middle East and Africa’s food security

Locusts swarm the sky over the Houthi rebel-held Yemeni capital Sanaa, as a UN expert warns millions face food insecurity due to the insects. (AFP/File Photo)
Locusts swarm the sky over the Houthi rebel-held Yemeni capital Sanaa, as a UN expert warns millions face food insecurity due to the insects. (AFP/File Photo)
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Updated 06 February 2021

Locust swarms pose new threat to Middle East and Africa’s food security

Locusts swarm the sky over the Houthi rebel-held Yemeni capital Sanaa, as a UN expert warns millions face food insecurity due to the insects. (AFP/File Photo)
  • UN expert warns millions face food insecurity as wet weather drives explosion in insect population
  • Climate change making drought and floods more common, contributing to growth of desert-locust swarms

DUBAI: Despite its best efforts throughout 2020 to bring the scourge of desert locusts under control, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) warns that swarms of the crop-eating insects now pose an even greater threat to agricultural and pastoral livelihoods and the food security of millions from the Horn of Africa to Yemen.

Last month, FAO said favorable weather conditions and widespread seasonal rains had led to an explosion in locust breeding in eastern Ethiopia and Somalia — made worse by Cyclone Gati. Infestations are forecast to increase in the coming months alongside a new cycle of breeding on the Red Sea coast.

“As the region is already extremely vulnerable, given three years of drought followed by last year’s heavy rains and floods, compounded by COVID-19 and insecurity, desert locust swarms represent an additional shock that can have severe consequences for food security and livelihoods,” Keith Cressman, senior locust forecasting officer at FAO’s Desert Locust Information Service (DLIS), told Arab News.

“A one square kilometer-swarm can consume the same amount of food in one day as 35,000 people.”




A one square kilometer-swarm can consume the same amount of food in one day as 35,000 people, Keith Cressman told Arab News. (AFP/File Photo)

Although Saudi Arabia has fought to contain desert locusts for decades, FAO says the impending swarms pose a far greater threat to the Kingdom, Eritrea, Sudan and Yemen than those seen previously.

The Saudi government is taking precautions thanks to a well-established national program and the work of the Ministry of Environment, Water and Agriculture’s Locusts and Migratory Pests Control Center, based in Jeddah.

“Well-trained national experts, in collaboration with agriculture offices throughout the country, constantly monitor the situation by carrying out ground surveys and apply control measures by ground and air when required,” Cressman said.

“Desert locusts are omnivorous — they eat everything, starting with the natural vegetation in the desert that becomes green after rain, followed by rain-fed agriculture on the fringes of the desert, then irrigated agriculture. They can also attack date palms.”




Keith Cressman, senior locust forecasting officer at FAO’s Desert Locust Information Service (DLIS). (Supplied/File Photo)

Locust swarms form when their population increases and they become crowded together. They then switch from a solitary to a social phase, quickly multiplying 20-fold in a span of just three months, when they can reach densities of 80 million per square kilometer.

When they affect several countries simultaneously in large numbers, they are classified as a plague.

Last summer, the Saudi government deployed 40 field teams to fight desert locusts in high-risk areas south of Riyadh, in the southeast of Asir, the hinterlands of Najran, the eastern desert, and the eastern Taif highlands of the Makkah region.

Their mission was to prevent a swarm spreading out from Yemen, Oman and the Empty Quarter through adoption of measures to reduce breeding.

That summer, abnormally heavy rainfall in the southern Arabian Peninsula coincided with the summer migration of locust swarms from East Africa toward southwest Asia, India and Pakistan.




A boy holds desert locusts caught while swarming the sky over the Huthi rebel-held Yemeni capital Sanaa on July 28, 2019. (AFP/File Photo)

“The locust hatching and swarming cycle has been happening with disastrous effect since before biblical times,” Jeffrey Culpepper, chairman of UAE-based Agrisecura, which provides sustainable solutions for food security purposes, told Arab News.

“Some swarms are worse than others due to the level of rain prior to the hatch. This cycle will be bad. Very bad.”

Culpepper says outdoor regional crop production is already suffering due to climate change — and the locust swarms are making matters worse. He expects the GCC countries will come off lightly due to their minimal external crop production. But others will not be so lucky.

“The public green spaces, especially gardens and golf courses, will be hit hard because the locusts will eat everything in sight overnight,” Culpepper said. “Poorer regional neighbors like Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia and Turkey, who have access to river irrigation for external crops, mainly grains, will be hit hard, and countries like Yemen, Somalia and Eritrea, already suffering from internal strife, will suffer even more.”

THENUMBERS

Locusts

* A swarm of desert locusts 1sq km in size can contain 40-80 million insects.

* Desert locusts regularly cross the Red Sea — a distance of 300km.

* A Paris-sized swarm can eat the same amount of food in 1 day as half the French population.

Due to Saudi Arabia’s relative dryness, Culpepper says the Kingdom is not usually badly affected. “Locusts prefer softer green matter, but when hungry will eat anything, including young date palm plants,” he said.

“The external wheat circles and silage (a type of fodder) projects that still exist will be harmed. Due to water constraints, wheat and silage projects have been declining in the last few years, so we can expect to see some brown football pitches and public planted spaces.”

FAO is assisting governments and its partners with surveillance and coordination, technical advice and the procurement of supplies and equipment to fight the swarms. At the same time, it has said operations must be scaled up to safeguard food production and prevent further food insecurity in the affected countries.

To date, almost $200 million has been spent on control efforts, allowing the FAO and governments to rapidly expand their locust-response capacity.




Climate change is impacting locust breeding, migration and invasion. COVID-19’s disruption to supply chains has also made it difficult for some countries to obtain pesticides. (AFP/File Photo)

“Over 1,500 ground survey and control personnel have been trained and 110 vehicle-mounted ground sprayers and 20 aircraft are now in action,” the UN agency said.

“FAO is now seeking a further $40 million to increase surveillance and control activities in the most affected countries — Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen — in 2021. More than 35 million people are already acutely food insecure in these five countries and FAO estimates this number could increase by another 3.5 million if nothing is done to control the latest outbreak.”

Although Saudi Arabia has dedicated funds to the effort, more is needed from other donors to avoid a slowdown in locust-control efforts.

Going forward, the challenges are many. Climate change is impacting locust breeding, migration and invasion. COVID-19’s disruption to supply chains has also made it difficult for some countries to obtain pesticides.




A picture dated 12 August 2007 shows locusts in a pot, which were gathered by Yemenis in the capital Sanaa. (AFP/File Photo)

The irregularity of the outbreaks, together with the costs and logistical hurdles associated with regular monitoring in remote areas like eastern Saudi Arabia’ Empty Quarter, makes it hard for governments to prepare and respond.

“Another issue is staff that often change jobs. Training is a constant requirement,” Cressman said. “There are also budgetary constraints when governments may have other priorities, especially in years when the desert locusts are calm.”

This is where new technologies can step in to ensure timely reporting of high-quality and accurate field data, used for analyzing and forecasting, as well as during control campaigns.

“Since its establishment in the 1950s, FAO’s DLIS has been providing early warning and forecasts of swarm invasions to all countries, which are key to preventing their plagues,” Cressman said.

“FAO works with countries at risk to strengthen their capacity to monitor and control locusts. During emergencies such as now, FAO has mobilized financial resources with international donors and provided technical expertise in coordinating and implementing control campaigns.”




Swarms of locusts fly in a residential area in the southwestern Pakistani city of Quetta on June 26, 2020. (AFP/File Photo)

Culpepper has witnessed firsthand the devastating impact of locust swarms while working in western and central Africa. “There is an old saying that ‘famine is the handmaiden of locusts,’” he said.

“For years, groups like the UN have been experimenting with various locust-control projects with minimal results due to the magnitude of the problem. Yet it’s getting less attention because it is predominantly a Third World problem. Extensive pesticide spraying and crop rotations have not worked.”

However, with climate change making droughts and floods more frequent, widespread and extreme, experts predict locusts will soon become a First World problem too.

“Increased wind events like cyclones, hurricanes and more dramatic monsoons will spread breeding locusts further afield,” Culpepper said.

“The science is simple: The more they eat, the more they breed. And the more they breed, the further they have to swarm to find food.”

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Twitter: @CalineMalek


Iranian police force deputy dismissed over protests in Baluchestan Province

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Updated 11 min 16 sec ago

Iranian police force deputy dismissed over protests in Baluchestan Province

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Vatican envoy to Iraq tested Covid-19 positive: officials

Vatican envoy to Iraq tested Covid-19 positive: officials
Updated 12 min 21 sec ago

Vatican envoy to Iraq tested Covid-19 positive: officials

Vatican envoy to Iraq tested Covid-19 positive: officials

BAGHDAD: The Vatican’s ambassador to Iraq Mitja Leskovar has tested positive for Covid-19, two officials told AFP Sunday, just days before Pope Francis’ historic visit.
“Yes, he tested positive, but it will have no impact on the visit,” an Iraqi official involved in the papal plans said.
An Italian diplomat also confirmed the infection.
As apostolic nuncio to Baghdad, Leskovar had been traveling across the country in recent weeks to prepare for the pope’s ambitious visit, including visits to Mosul in the north, the shrine city of Najaf and the southern site of Ur.
During foreign trips, popes typically stay at the nuncio’s residence, but Iraqi officials have not revealed where Francis will reside during his trip, citing security reasons.
Iraq is experiencing a resurgence of coronavirus infections, which the health ministry has blamed on a new faster-spreading strain that first emerged in the United Kingdom.
The country of 40 million is registering around 4,000 new cases per day, near the peak that it had reached in September, with total infections nearing 700,000 and deaths at nearly 13,400.
Pope Francis, as well as his Vatican staff and the dozens of international reporters traveling with him, have already been vaccinated.
Iraq itself has yet to begin its vaccination campaign.


Israeli defense minister says Iran behind cargo ship explosion

Israeli defense minister says Iran behind cargo ship explosion
Updated 28 February 2021

Israeli defense minister says Iran behind cargo ship explosion

Israeli defense minister says Iran behind cargo ship explosion

DUBAI: Iran was most likely behind an explosion that occurred earlier this week on an Israeli-owned cargo vessel in the Gulf of Oman, the Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz said. 
The MV Helios Ray, which was carrying vehicles in the Gulf was struck on Febriuary 25.
“The location of the ship in relative close proximity to Iran raises the belief that Iran was responsible, but it must still be verified," Gantz said in an interview with Israeli state television Kan.

“Right now, at an initial assessment level, given the proximity and the context that is my assessment,” he added.And Gantz said that it was known that Iran was intending to target Israeli assets and citizens.
Top Israeli defense and political leaders will discuss on Sunday their response to the apparent attack, Kan reported citing officials who have said it "crossed a red line."

The explosion did not cause any casualties but left two 1.5-meter-diameter holes in the side of the vessel.

The MV Ray Helios arrived in Dubai's port for repairs Sunday, according to the Associated Press.

 The Israeli-owned MV Helios Ray was seen sitting at dry dock facilities in Dubai by an AP journalist. 

Reuters quoted a statement by a spokesman for Dubai state port operator DP World saying that “an assessment can be made” when the ship arrives. DP World owns and operates the dry docks, where ship repairs and maintenance are carried out.

Iranian authorities have not publicly commented on the ship.


Yemeni minister warns of looming humanitarian crisis in Marib

Yemeni minister warns of looming humanitarian crisis in Marib
Updated 28 February 2021

Yemeni minister warns of looming humanitarian crisis in Marib

Yemeni minister warns of looming humanitarian crisis in Marib

DUBAI: Yemen’s information minister has warned of an imminent humanitarian crisis in the governorate of Marib that “cannot be contained” due to continued fighting by the Iran-backed Houthi militia. 

Minister Muammar al-Eryani told the country’s state news agency Saba that the governorate holds the biggest number of refugee families, who have been displaced due to the ongoing Houthi violence. 

Eryani said Marib had received more than two million refugees who have settled there since the war broke out, saying they make up 60 percent of refugees in the country. Those refugees represent 7.5 percent of the total population in Yemen.  

The minister was citing a report on from the Executive Unit for IDPs Camps Management that was released Friday. 


Celebrated Turkish actor risks jail for Erdogan ‘insult’

Celebrated Turkish actor risks jail for Erdogan ‘insult’
Updated 28 February 2021

Celebrated Turkish actor risks jail for Erdogan ‘insult’

Celebrated Turkish actor risks jail for Erdogan ‘insult’
  • He is in danger of becoming the latest victim in the Turkish leader’s years-long battle with what he dismissively calls “so-called artists.”

ISTANBUL: Mujdat Gezen’s half-century career as an acclaimed Turkish writer and actor has included awards, a stint as a UN goodwill ambassador and a taste of prison after a 1980 putsch.
Now aged 77, the wry-witted comedian and poet with an easy smile and a bad back risks returning to jail on charges of insulting Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
He is in danger of becoming the latest victim in the Turkish leader’s years-long battle with what he dismissively calls “so-called artists.”
“I am even banned from appearing in crossword puzzles,” Gezen quipped.
Gezen landed in court with fellow comedian Metin Akpinar, 79, over comments the pair made during a television show they starred in on opposition Halk TV in 2018.
In the broadcast, Gezen told Erdogan to “know your place.”
“Look Recep Tayyip Erdogan, you cannot test our patriotism. Know your place,” Gezen said on air.
His parter Akpinar went one step further, saying that “if we don’t become a (democracy)... the leader might end up getting strung up by his legs or poisoned in the cellar.”
These are risky comments to make in a country still reeling from a sweeping crackdown Erdogan unleashed after surviving a failed coup in 2016.
Their trial is coming with Erdogan rattled by a burst of student protests that hint at Turks’ impatience with his commanding rule as prime minister and president since 2003.
Prosecutors want to put the two veteran celebrities behind bars for up to four years and eight months. The verdict is expected on Monday.

Jailed over book
Thousands of Turks, from a former Miss Turkey to school children, have been prosecuted for insulting Erdogan on social media and television.
Bristling at the jokes and comments, Erdogan warned in 2018 that his critics “will pay the price.”
“The next day,” Gezen told AFP in an interview by telephone, “police turned up and I was summoned to give a statement to prosecutors.”
The knock on the door reminded Gezen of how he ended up being dragged before the courts after spending 20 days in jail when a military junta overthrew Turkey’s civilian government at the height of the Cold War in 1980.
Gezen’s book about Nazim Hikmet — perhaps Turkey’s most famous 20th century poet, who happened to be a communist who died in exile in Moscow in 1963 — was taken off the shelves after that coup.
“I was chained up while being taken from prison to court with a gang of 50 criminals, including murderers and smugglers,” he recalled.
He was freed by the court in 1980, and may yet be acquitted on Monday.
Still, Gezen is uncomfortable with the similarities, and with Turkey’s trajectory under Erdogan.
“There is a record number of journalists in jail — we have never seen this in the history of the republic. That’s what upsets me,” he said.

Irritable dictator
An author of more than 50 books and founder of his own art center in Istanbul, Gezen says he has “either criticized or parodied politicians to their faces” for decades without going to jail.
His popularity and resolve earned him a role in 2007 as a goodwill ambassador for the UNICEF children’s relief fund.
But he fears that Turkey’s tradition of outspoken artists — “art is by its nature oppositional,” he remarked — is wilting under Erdogan.
“We now have self-censorship. But what is even more painful to me is that (some artists) prefer to be apolitical,” he said.
“The president has said how he expects artists to behave. But it cannot be the president of a country who decides these things. It’s the artists who must decide.”
To be on the safe side, Gezen’s lawyers now read his books before publication to avoid legal problems.
“It is risky in Turkey,” he observed.
Many of the opposition media outlets that once flourished have been either closed or taken over by government allies, leaving independent voices with even fewer options.
But he remains doggedly optimistic, calling democracy in Turkey something tangible but just out of reach, like the shore for a stranded boat.
“And then someone up on the mast will cry: Land ahoy!“