Heavy rains with a surge of locust swarms: The forecast from earlier this year sounded like the Bible’s Book of Exodus, which described a plague of locusts so destructive that “nothing green was left, of tree or grass of the field in all the land of Egypt.”
Documentation of desert locust plagues reaches back to ancient times, but even today the desert locust remains a major agricultural threat. In February, the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) warned that locust-friendly weather conditions had led to the formation and spread of crop-eating mobile swarms of the desert locust along both sides of the Red Sea.
FAO takes such alerts seriously, and so do Red Sea-area nations, which work hard in cooperation with adversaries to prevent locust infestation. Even a “small” swarm, consisting of about one ton of locusts, eats the same amount of food in one day as about 35,000 people, consuming all crops, fruits and vegetation in their wake, not just destroying people’s agricultural livelihoods but also leading to their possible starvation.
Colin Everard, who worked for the Desert Locust Control Organization (DLC) in the 1950s and 1960s and is author of the new book “Desert Locust Plagues: Controlling the Ancient Scourge,” points out that larger swarms can weigh 30,000-40,000 tons, leading to the destruction of 15,000-20,000 tons of crops and grazing pasture daily.
“The impact can be colossal — misery, hunger, death through starvation,” Everard says. The devastation can be so total that in the wake of a desert locust plague in Ethiopia, he saw people who had hanged themselves on trees. “With everything destroyed, the people there had two options, to slowly starve to death or to hang themselves.”
That was in the 1950s, decades before advanced satellite technology provided the ability to monitor weather conditions, detect locust breeding activity and immediately transmit the exact GPS of the affected areas to government officials charged with overseeing locust control.
But even the most recent major outbreak, from 2003 to 2005, affected 25 countries across north and northwest Africa, requiring spraying of close to 30 million acres. The total cost, including food aid delivered to stave off starvation, was $750 million.
The situation reported earlier this year in the Red Sea area is now under control, says Keith Cressman, FAO’s senior locust forecasting officer. The early heads-up triggered Sudan, Saudi Arabia and Eritrea to step up insecticide spraying by vehicle and aircraft in the threatened area. But without effective control measures, the situation would have been “much, much worse,” he said.
That meant that the Red Sea area, including Egypt, was safe from infestation this Passover, a holiday in which locusts play a role in the Exodus story as the eighth of the Ten Plagues occasioned by Pharaoh’s refusal to grant freedom to the Hebrew slaves.
As with forest fires, says Cressman, prevention is the keystone. But an essential part of prevention is collaboration among countries where desert locusts breed.
“Independent of language or culture or politics” or ongoing conflicts on this issue, he says, “Israel and Egypt work together; Israel is in contact with Jordan on a regular basis about this; Saudi Arabia and Yemen work together, and so do Eritrea and Ethiopia, and India and Pakistan.”
The potential price of not cooperating is just too high. And it may be one more reason this year, as every year, to remember the destruction a plague of locusts can bring — and that prevention through cooperation transcends political animosities.