Race Against Time to Destroy Locust Menace

A plague of locusts is threatening to devastate large swathes of farmland, just as tens of thousands of refugees return from exile.

Race Against Time to Destroy Locust Menace

A plague of locusts is threatening to devastate large swathes of farmland, just as tens of thousands of refugees return from exile.

Farmers, aid organisations and even the militia are working round the clock to kill off the last of the spring locust nymphs before they can take to the air and ravage more of Afghanistan's much-needed harvest.

Lack of equipment, pesticides and coordination between the national and regional bodies are taking their toll, with locust swarms already causing damage in several areas.

"We are poor people," said Konduz province subsistence farmer Mohammad Alim. "After all we have suffered - war, drought, earthquakes - now we must endure this. The locusts destroy our farms and the grass our livestock feed on. By the end of spring you will think that no plant has ever grown here. It is another plague."

Locusts lay their eggs in the soil. The young hatch as flightless nymphs and grow wings as adults - but a band of nymphs or "hoppers" can cover several km and cause serious damage to pasture and young cereal crops.

Afghanistan is especially susceptible to large swarms of locusts as 85 per cent of its viable farmland is concentrated in just five per cent of its land area.

When war broke out here in 1978 the country was virtually self-sufficient in food but within a dozen years, 70 per cent of its farmland had been destroyed.

From Badakshan in the north-east to the provinces bordering Central Asia, and as far west as Badghais, the pests have caused - or threaten - damage that both national and foreign agencies have found hard to quantify and harder still to combat.

Teams have been organised to wipe out the new generations of locust nymphs in the provinces of Baghlan, Balkh, Samargan and Konduz , where the first swarms appeared. The Red Cross and United Nations Food & Agriculture Organisation, FAO, are providing aid.

The nymphs hatch at different times, depending on climate. The higher the land, the cooler the environment and the later they emerge. As a result, attention is now focused on the higher slopes of Jozjan, Saripul, Takhar and Badghais provinces.

Sayed Habib Rahman - who heads a crop protection committee at the national ministry of agriculture - told IWPR, "We have been fighting the locusts with all our resources since the first nymphs hatched in March. We can't do more."

The crop damage is also creating new flows of internal refugees in a country already straining to deal with hundreds of thousands of returnees from camps in Pakistan and Iran.

Supplies of suitable pesticides such as Somic B and Dimethoit are in short supply as are the equipment and trained staff to use them safely.

Samangan regional military commander Ahmad Khan even organised a squad of 5,000 volunteers in an attempt to destroy the locust nymphs, though his men - working without pesticide sprays - were reduced to using shovels to destroy the eggs before they hatched.

"With 80,000 hectares of land to cover, we were able to clear just 8,000," admitted Abdul Ghani Ihsan, director of agricultural affairs in the Baghlan province government.

"We just don't have the resources or medicines to destroy them all. But if we don't eradicate them they will destroy more crops in the coming weeks and even more eggs will be laid for next year."

In the provincial capital of Pul-e-Khumri, his teams are collecting nets, pesticides, protective clothing and masks, delivered by the Red Cross and the UN. Some 1,120 workers in 133 teams are combing farmland in 19 different areas of the province.

However, the FAO is suffering from a lack of up to date information about the problem. "It is very hard to estimate the loss so far or how many crops have been damaged," said programme manager Richard Chinnor.

The FAO has provided 1,300 pesticide hand pumps capable of clearing 25 hectares of land each - more than 32,000 hectares - to be used in eradication programmes until the last crops come in August.

In Konduz, to the north of the country, local agriculture affairs director al-Haj Mohammed Ibrahim complains that his province is getting less assistance now than in the past. "The interim authority should send more help and declare a state of emergency if necessary in the region," he said.

Qadam Ali Naik Pai, now an official with the national ministry of information and culture, grew up among the beautiful farms and gardens north of the Hindu Kush mountains.

"I was shocked to see how the locusts had damaged them," he said. "What happens to these agricultural areas affects the whole country. It is amazing that human beings can travel to the stars but cannot find a way to stop this devastation."

Mohammad Shafiq Haqpal is a freelance journalist in Kabul.

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