Concern grows that a plague of insects will devastate food supplies next year in the country’s ‘breadbasket’ region
Afghanistan is facing a locust timebomb after billions of eggs were laid by the grasshoppers in the country’s breadbasket, raising fears that a plague of insects will devastate food supplies next year.
For the first time in two decades, swarms of Moroccan locusts – described as the “bad boys” of the locust world because of their voracious appetite – arrived in northern Afghanistan in March.
The United Nations warned that the insects, which devour more than 150 different plants, could destroy as much as 1.2 million metric tonnes of wheat – around a quarter of the country’s total annual harvest.
Although the locusts have caused significant damage this year, limiting food supplies in some areas, the worst scenarios have largely been avoided. But the insects have left billions of eggs buried in the ground in a region known for being Afghanistan’s breadbasket.
“Locusts do two things – either mate or swarm – but they can’t do both at the same time,” Richard Trenchard, country director of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), a UN agency, told the Telegraph. In many areas this year they’ve mated two or three times, he added, which limited the size of the locust swarms.
“In that sense we were lucky… the fact we didn’t have big swarms because they were mating saved this year. But it turbocharged the impact for next year – you tend to get a multiplier of around 10 from one year to the next,” Mr Trenchard said.
“We know there’s a massive risk sitting in the ground now: billions of eggs.”
This could create a major food crisis come May 2024, when the new generation of Moroccan locusts will begin to hatch – a blow to a country where a third of the population are already facing chronic hunger following three consecutive droughts, ongoing instability and falling humanitarian aid.
Currently, there’s a $2.2bn shortfall in funding for the sector, and earlier this year the World Food Programme was forced to slash rations for millions due to funding shortfalls.
“There is huge anxiety about where and how to get food for people in Afghanistan – although the number of people facing crisis hunger has fallen slightly, still around 15.3 million require urgent assistance,” Arshad Malik, Save the Children’s country director, told the Telegraph.
“Next year is predicted to be a much needed bumper crop after years of drought, but the locusts are a looming threat to this.”
Moroccan locusts have hit Afghanistan hard twice in recent history. In 1981, swarms wiped out around a quarter of harvests, while they claimed a more modest eight per cent of crops in 2003, as a major locust-control effort was launched.
But major “political obstacles” could impede efforts to repeat that scenario and prevent a food crisis in May 2024, when a new generation of Moroccan locusts will begin to hatch.
This is because FAO policy does not allow non-governmental organisations to roll out chemical spraying campaigns, instead leaving this to trained government staff.
“We are not authorised to let NGOs do that, it’s very technical and there’s too much of a health risk, too much risk of ineffective locust control,” Mr Trenchard said. “The [Afghan ministry] guys have been trained over the last 20 years, they’re regarded as having one of the best locust control capacities in the world.”
But the government used the limited spray it had stockpiled to control locusts in about 5,000 hectares of infested land this year. Across another 30,000 hectares, communities used the “back-breaking” traditional approach to control adolescent locusts – dig trenches, sweep the insects inside, and bury them.
Mr Trenchard said, despite ongoing conversations, donors are wary of giving the Taliban-controlled government funds directly, given their approach to human rights – especially women’s. But he warned that not providing limited funds now will be worse for the population and cost the humanitarian community millions more in food aid next year.
“The humanitarian bill is already too high,” he said. “If we have a massive [locust] outbreak, it will reverse the gains that have been made and push millions more into food insecurity.”
Mr Malik stopped short of calling for donors to directly fund the Taliban, but warned that solutions are needed to mitigate the locust timebomb lurking under the surface of Afghanistan’s breadbasket.
“We cannot starve the people of Afghanistan because of the political issues at the top level,” he said.