Massive numbers of red locusts may be threatening Egypt’s agriculture, reports Reem Leila
As if the present state of domestic unrest was not enough for the country to deal with, Egypt has lately also been experiencing nature’s anger with swarms of red locusts now threatening the country’s agriculture.
The locusts have been sighted at the Cairo International Airport, having been chased away from other locations, and on Sunday they attacked the Obour fruit and vegetable market, where traders tried to protect their produce by burning tyres to disperse the locusts.
The locusts have also been seen in the Suez governorate. On 2 March, swarms of locusts were spotted in several districts of Cairo such as Muqattam, Nasr City and New Cairo, all of them coming from the Red Sea.
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has issued a report warning Egypt and Sudan against attacks by locusts, describing the situation as “threatening” to crops and agriculture.
At least 20 swarms of locusts have invaded Egypt over the past three months. On 25 February, locusts were spotted in Marsa Alam in the Red Sea governorate, and swarms have also been sighted in Aswan, the Eastern Desert, Hurghada, Shalateen, Sheikh Al-Shazli and other areas.
Nader Noureddin, an agricultural expert, stated that there were currently two known swarms in Halayeb and Shalateen, along with seven others believed to be on Egypt’s southern borders with Sudan.
There were also 10 locust swarms in Sudan itself, he said, and these were expected to migrate to Egypt. Each swarm can be composed of up to 80 million locusts, Noureddin said.
“One swarm of locusts can gobble up 100,000 tonnes of crops, an amount sufficient to feed 500,000 people for a whole year,” Noureddin said. The insects gorge themselves on the fruit, leaves, buds, seeds, bark, stems and flowers of plants, leading to their destruction.
Noureddin criticised officials at the Ministry of Agriculture and land reclamation for not reacting to the FAO report. Locusts can fly great distances, he said, with a single swarm being able to fly over 100km per day in the direction of the prevailing wind. Each locust can lay 150 eggs, which require 6-12 days to hatch, and each adult locust takes two months to become sexually mature.
“The locusts have been in Egypt for three months. The officials concerned have failed to combat them on the country’s southern and eastern borders, and as a result they will now have to take steps to fight the swarms before the locusts can gather in colossal numbers such that it will be practically impossible to combat them,” he said.
At least 3.6 million feddans of the country’s agricultural land are at risk due to the locust invasion, Noureddin said. The best method of control is to monitor the situation closely and to follow up movements in neighbouring countries.
“Regular monitoring of solitary locust populations during recessionary periods is essential in order to predict their behaviour and to locate the swarms. This can help ensure that rapid control measures can be taken if necessary,” he said.
Eight per cent of the damage is caused by locust nymphs, and 69 per cent is due to young swarms that are not yet sexually mature. Twenty-three per cent is caused by mature locusts. Salah Moawad, head of the Agricultural Services Sector at the Ministry of Agriculture and Land Reclamation, said in a press release that Egypt was comparatively lucky in that locust nymphs were attacking its agriculture.
“These are sexually immature and do not depend on plants for energy since they mainly rely on fat stores. Locusts keep fat in storage for one week in order that they can remain light. Current inspection teams at areas plagued by locusts have not recorded significant damage up till now.”
Concerns have been raised about the present situation repeating itself in coming years, as Egypt seems to be changing from a transit region for locusts into a breeding ground. Moawad, however, said that the presently observed locusts were still sexually immature, meaning that they would not lay eggs or breed in the country.
But Noureddin disagreed, saying that “at least 15 per cent of the locusts that have been flying over Cairo have been mature, holding out the possibility that they could lay eggs that would hatch within two weeks.”
Moawad said that “the evidence is clear cut. The locusts that have moved from Sudan to Egypt are red in colour, whereas mature ones are yellowish.”
Control and surveying operations have eliminated 80 per cent of the locusts, he added. “Over the past few weeks, locust-control teams have cleared the insects from 95,000 feddans, and they are currently treating locust infestations in 17 other areas across four governorates.”
Sahar Youssef, a researcher in pest control at Ain Shams University in Cairo, said that red locusts often do not attack crops, but they might attack if exposed to pesticides. “Since reproduction usually occurs before the spring season, the current locust attack could last for several weeks,” Youssef said.
In order to prevent crops from being damaged by locusts, they must be sprayed with chemical pesticides. However, these are harmful to human health, and the authorities in Egypt do not use them. “The current pesticides used to combat locusts limit the damage but do not stop it,” Youssef added.
A similar situation took place in 2004, when locust swarms attacked 15 governorates in Egypt. According to a report issued by the Land Centre for Human Rights, a local NGO concerned with agricultural issues, at the time, 38 per cent of the nation’s crops were damaged due to locust attacks.
In 2007 and 2011, there were further waves of locust attacks on Egypt’s agricultural lands, but on these occasions the insects departed without causing major damage.