Farmers brace for locust invasion in Egypt's Nile Delta

Nada El-Kouny , Tuesday 26 Feb 2013

With swarms of locusts currently en route to Egypt's fertile Nile Delta, assessments vary regarding potential threat to this year's agricultural crops

Locust swarm enters Egypt from Sudan, threatening livelihood (Photo: Reuters)

Recent weeks have seen increasing reports of a "plague of locusts," which some experts say could hit Egypt's Nile Delta within days.

Since January, swarms of the insects – originating from Sudan – have been spotted along the Red Sea coast, in south-eastern Egypt, north-eastern Sudan, Eritrea and Saudi Arabia.

On 17 February, the UN's Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) reported that more locust swarms were expected in south-eastern Egypt and north-eastern Sudan.

On Monday, swarms were reported to have reached Egypt's Red Sea city of Zafarana, some 200 kilometres from Cairo, en route to Saudi Arabia. On Tuesday, an emergency alert was issued in the Upper Egyptian city of Qena after locusts appeared in at least three major villages.

FAO Communication Consultant Rafaella Rucci told Ahram Online that the situation had been officially designated a "threat," but had yet to be classified as a "danger."

"The situation is not as alarming as news sources are saying," Rucci asserted. "For example, it isn't accurate to say that the locusts will reach the Nile Delta 'within hours'."

While it is impossible to assess their numbers – or the threat they pose to agriculture – Rucci explained that various locust-containment strategies were being currently being pursued in coordination with Egypt's agriculture ministry.

Mohsen Abdu, head of the ministry's locust-prevention department, told Ahram Online that "all necessary measures" were being adopted to deal with the threat. Control teams, for example, had been deployed in affected areas, where military helicopters have been spraying insecticide over non-residential areas.

Abdu, speaking from Marsa Allam in south-eastern Egypt, estimated that roughly four million locusts a day were being targeted in hopes of preventing them from reaching the Nile Delta.

According to a recent FAO statement, locust numbers will likely increase as long as weather conditions remain favourable for their breeding and no more rains fall. Experts say wind direction, too, will be a main factor in determining the danger locusts pose to specific areas, such as Egypt's Nile Delta.

In 2004, Egypt witnessed one of the most serious locust infestations in recent history, when farmers in 15 out of the country's 27 governorates suffered extensive crop damage. At the time, the Land Centre for Human Rights, a local NGO devoted to agriculture issues, reported that 38 percent of the nation's crops had been damaged as a direct result of the phenomenon.

Mohamed Fathi, a large-scale farmer in Egypt's Sharqiya governorate in the Nile Delta, said that the locusts' impact on agriculture would depend almost entirely on wind direction. Since the locusts first appeared in Egypt, winds have continued along a northerly direction and could be expected to do so for at least another week.

Egypt is Africa's largest wheat grower, with an expected output of 8.5 million tonnes in 2012/13, according to data from the International Grains Council. Egypt boasts approximately 3.6 million hectares of agricultural land, meaning the country has a lot to lose in the event of a major locust infestation.

According to the FAO, one tonne of locusts eat the same amount of food in a single day as about 2,500 people.

Mohamed Abdel-Razek, who manages a farm in the Beheira governorate (also located in Egypt's Nile Delta), many farmers are in a state of extreme anxiety, with many expecting an imminent locust invasion.

"Once they arrive, they can't be stopped," he said of the crop-destroying creatures. "Preventative measures should have been taken much earlier."

Abdel Razek, whose crops represent his family's main source of income, blamed the locusts' appearance on government negligence. "The fact that the locusts were able to enter Egypt means the government has failed to do its job," he said. "They should have been stopped at the border."

The locust danger comes at a precarious time for Egypt, when the country's budget deficit has reached $160 billion and foreign reserves have fallen to less than half of their pre-revolution levels.

Former agriculture minister Salah Youssef, for his part, had a unique take on the situation.

"The plague of locusts appears to be God's will," said Youssef, who briefly served as minister in the wake of Egypt's revolution in early 2011. "We must accept it; we deserve it," he added, in reference to recent domestic political turmoil.    

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