Bamako — Clouds of desert locusts have arrived in rebel-held northern Mali, where insecurity has hampered pest control, bringing fears that the insects may devastate a country already struck by drought, conflict, and the displacement of more than 360,000 people.
Swarms of immature locusts have invaded Kidal and Aguelhok in northern Mali, which was taken over by Islamist fighters and other armed rebels after a military coup in the capital, Bamako, ousted president Amadou Toumani Toure in March.
"It is difficult to know exactly how the situation is, as it is not safe to send scientific teams there. We cannot assess and fight locusts anymore," said Manda Sadio Keita, a programme officer of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Mali.
Controlling desert locusts, one of about a dozen species of short-horned grasshoppers, is extremely difficult because they exist in an enormous area of up to 30 million square kilometres, sometimes characterized by insecurity, poor roads and the remoteness of some parts, among other factors, according to the FAO.
The locusts often fly with the wind, travelling at 16km to 19km per hour, and can cover distances of up to 130km per day. "Mali is the most important country in the Sahel in terms of protection [against the spread of locusts, but] it is the weakest link," Keita added.
The insects have spread south from outbreak areas along the Algeria-Libya border, where swarms are declining after control measures, but in early June FAO said northern Niger had also been infested.
In 2004 swarms of locusts up to 20km long and 5km wide devastated pastures, crops and vegetation across the Sahel from Dakar, the capital of Senegal on the Atlantic coast, to Ndjamena, the capital of Chad, half a continent away.
There is no evidence that locust plagues occur at regular intervals. "We need more research. We scarcely understand why there are locusts in one year and not in another," said Dr Amadou Diarra, a specialist in insect control at the Institut du Sahel, a regional research body.
"After 2004, we organized regional seminars, mobilized ourselves and ordered a lot of insecticides - something that we didn't do during the last invasion. The country learnt its lesson," Diarra said.
Recent downpours in Mali have brought fresh vegetation that is likely to trigger the growth and spread of the voracious insects. Before the rebels overran northern Mali, the authorities had made preparations for a possible locust invasion.
But the rebels have ransacked and looted warehouses where the chemicals were stored in the northern town of Gao, seized around 30 small delivery trucks used for distribution and other equipment, and occupied the buildings at a centre for locust control. "Mali could have effectively controlled the insects if the base had not been destroyed," Keita told IRIN.
It is not clear where the millions of litres of the toxic chemicals are now, and there are worries over the effects they could have on humans and the environment if they are mishandled or disposed of carelessly.
"If they were dumped in the bushes there would be a serious environmental crisis. People living near rivers would have serious health problems," Keita warned. Only one small pest control centre now remains, located outside Bamako, in the south.
The first direct control measure to halt the spread of the locusts is to set up operations in the north and spray the insects with pesticides before they grow wings. But in a vast rebel-controlled territory, the obstacles of insecurity and logistics, in a country struggling to resolve a post-coup political crisis, make this unlikely.
The option being studied by the agriculture ministry is to mount locust control operations in northern Mali and down along the border with Niger, its eastern neighbour, to Burkina Faso in the south. Under the circumstances this could be feasible, but could cost 780 million CFA francs (around UC$1.5 million), according to FAO.
In June, the Malian government discussed the possibility of carrying out the operation with the FAO, the Permanent Inter-State Committee against Drought in the Sahel (CILSS) and other actors. "It is becoming more and more important to set up a line of defence as soon as possible," said Modibo Traoré, another FAO programme officer.
Countries in the Sahel face serious food shortages that have affected more than 18 million people, but in Mali, with its political divisions and unresolved conflicts, a locust invasion would be calamitous.
Aid operations were disrupted after rebels looted the vehicles and equipment of several relief organizations as they swept across northern Mali after the coup, leaving the drought-stricken residents without assistance. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) estimates that more than 3.5 million Malians are hungry.
"If there is an invasion, like in 2004, it will be a catastrophe," said the FAO's Keita. Crops and pasture will be destroyed and nomadic cattle keepers would lose their herds.
[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations ]