Abidjan — In the coming weeks, Northern Mali could face severe locust outbreaks, as a result of recent fighting and instability that has weakened the region's capacity to destroy the insects, according to experts.
The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) issued a desert locust warning last week (12 October) saying swarms are present in Chad and may start forming shortly in Niger and Mali. There are fears these locusts could threaten food security, as well as affecting the region's fragile education sector.
Recent conflicts with troops fleeing Libya, including Touareg rebels and Islamist groups, has destroyed almost all Northern Mali's capacity for preventing devastating locust swarms, according to Fabaka Diakité, coordinator of the National Centre for the Fight Against Locusts (CNLCP).
Research laboratories, research stations, and warning and prevention systems for locust outbreaks have all been destroyed. The region's capacity to distribute insecticides to communities has also been severely diminished, while the unstable situation in Libya, which usually prevents locust swarms from moving south, has undermined its ability to do so.
Since early September, the country has been under threat from a new locust invasion, according to the CNLCP and the FAO. Swarms have been detected in the Kidal region of northern Mali.
The FAO's alert said the swarms detected in Chad are expected to migrate north and west from Chad, Mali and Niger and arrive in western and central Libya, southern and central Algeria, and northwest Mauritania during the second half of October.
Some swarms could reach western Algeria, southern Morocco and the Western Sahara. There is also a risk that a few swarms could move towards cropping areas in central and western Mali.
Locusts - which can eat their own bodyweight in fresh food everyday - threaten to further jeopardise food security in northern Mali, where food shortages due to recent conflict have left thousands of people hungry.
The government plans to work with populations living in northern Mali to treat infected areas, and to buy new equipment to aid this process.
According to Moussa Léo Sidibé, the Malian minister of agriculture, animal husbandry and fishing, the region needs 1.8 billion CFA francs (US$3.5 million) to carry out these activities.
The region was last hit hard by locust swarms in 2004, when it incurred heavy crop losses, according to CNLCP's Diakité.
But the impact of the locust invasions goes beyond food security, according to a recent paper by researchers from the Institute of Research for Development (IRD) and Mali's National Institute of Statistics (INSTA).
Their study found that locust invasions in Mali over the period of 1987-1989 had a detrimental long-term impact on school attendance rates of children born in villages around the time of the swarms, and children completed fewer years of schooling and attained lower grades.
According to Seydou Moussa Traoré, INSTA's general manager, girls were taken out of school earlier than their male schoolmates, with registration rates in village primary schools falling from 25 to 18 per cent for boys, and from 15 to 11 per cent for girls.
The study revealed that food shortages resulting from locust invasions affected the nutritional statuses of young children and pregnant women, with a knock-on effect on educational achievement. The children of farmers affected by the outbreaks might also be taken out of school due to a lack of income impairing their education prospects.