Heavy rains and cyclones have triggered a recent surge in desert locust populations, causing an outbreak to develop in the Sudan and Eritrea that is rapidly spreading along both sides of the Red Sea to Saudi Arabia and Egypt, the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) warned.

The UN agency called on all affected countries to step up vigilance and control measures to contain the destructive infestations and to protect crops from the world’s most destructive migratory pest.

Fast-moving swarms

Good rains along the Red Sea coastal plains in Eritrea and Sudan have allowed two generations of breeding since October, leading to a substantial increase in locust populations and the formation of highly mobile swarms. At least one swarm crossed the Red Sea to the northern coast of Saudi Arabia in mid-January, followed by additional migrations about a week later. Groups of mature winged adults and a few swarms also moved north along the coast to southeast Egypt at the end of the month.

In the interior of Saudi Arabia, two generations of breeding also occurred in the south-eastern Empty Quarter region near the Yemen-Oman border after unusually good rains from cyclones Mekunu and Luban, last May and October, respectively. A few of these swarms have reached the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and southern Iran with a potential risk of spreading further towards the India-Pakistan border.

Stepping up efforts

Aerial spraying operations supported by ground control measures have been mounted in Sudan,  Saudi Arabia, Eritrea and Egypt, treating more than 85 000ha since December.

“The next three months will be critical to bringing the locust situation under control before the summer breeding starts,” said Keith Cressman, FAO’s senior locust forecasting officer. “The further spread of the current outbreak depends on two major factors: effective control and monitoring measures in locust breeding areas of Sudan, Eritrea and Saudi Arabia and the surrounding countries, and rainfall intensity between March and May along both sides of the Red Sea and in the interior of the Arabian Peninsula.”

FAO is convening a meeting next week in Jordan (17 – 21 February) with affected countries, to review the current situation with the aim of intensifying survey and control operations.

February forecast

The locusts will continue to breed on the Red Sea coast in Sudan and Eritrea this month, causing a further increase in hopper and adult groups, hopper bands and adult swarms. As vegetation dries out, adult groups and a few swarms are likely to move north along the Red Sea coast from Eritrea to the Sudan, and from there to the Nile Valley in northern Sudan. There is a moderate risk that some swarms will continue to cross the Red Sea and invade the coastal and interior areas of Saudi Arabia.

Major threat to crop production

Desert locusts are swarming short-horned grasshoppers that threaten agricultural production, livelihoods, food security, the environment and economic development.

Adult locust swarms can fly rapidly up to distances of 150 km a day with favourable winds. Female locusts can lay 300 eggs in a lifetime, and adult insects can consume roughly their own weight, about two grams, in fresh food a day. Even a small swarm, or small part of an average swarm (about 1 ton of locusts), can eat the same amount of food in a day as about 2 500 people. The devastating impact locusts can have on crops poses a major threat to food security, especially in vulnerable areas.

FAO’s work on preventing locust plagues

The Desert Locust Information Service (DLIS) at FAO Headquarters in Rome has been operating a global monitoring and early warning system since the 1970s as part of a preventive control strategy. More than 24 frontline countries in Africa, the Near East and Southwest Asia contribute to this system by undertaking regular desert surveys to look for green vegetation and the desert locust.

Feld teams use an innovative tool developed by FAO called eLocust3, a handheld tablet for recording observations and sending data in real time via satellite to the national locust centres and to DLIS. This information is regularly analysed with weather and habitat data and satellite imagery to assess the current locust situation, provide forecasts up to six weeks in advance and issue warnings and alerts when necessary. – Press release