ROME, 10 May 2002 -- The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is coordinating efforts to combat a major outbreak of locusts in Northern Afghanistan, a region known as the bread-basket of the war-torn country.

The locust outbreak, probably the worst to hit Afghanistan in the last 30 years, threatens large areas planted mainly with wheat. Locust infestations have been reported in nine provinces, the most seriously affected of which is Baghlan, but Samangan and Qunduz provinces are also heavily infested. The difficulty of getting into mountainous areas hampers control measures in some places. In an area called Bandar, 16,000 hectares are reported infested. Plastic, nets and insecticide may have to be air-lifted into the area because roads have been badly affected by flooding, an FAO report says.

Two techniques are being used to deal with the locusts, one of them mechanical and the other chemical. For mechanical control, villagers are mobilized by the local authorities and are ferried to the areas where locust egg-pods have recently hatched. The villagers then dig ditches around the hatching area and chase the locust into the ditches and bury them. Sometimes they also collect up the hatchlings or hoppers and feed them to their poultry. The mechanical method works well if the areas infested are not too large.

This season in some places mechanical control has had to be supplemented by chemical control whereby a synthetic pyrethroid is sprayed in a very fine spray onto the hoppers, using handheld and vehicle-mounted sprayers.

As of 4 May, 21,000 hectares had been treated with chemicals and 81,000 hectares using the mechanical method. "Control on this scale in the very difficult circumstances that apply in Afghanistan at the moment is a major achievement and reflects great credit on the coordinated efforts of the villagers themselves, the Afghan Plant Protection officers who are reported to have done a marvellous job, the NGOs, and the FAO field staff," FAO expert Clive Elliott says.

The objective of this year's emergency locust campaign has been to limit crop damage to the lowest possible level. The campaign has about 30 to 40 days to run, by which time it is expected that the wheat harvest will be well underway. The threat to crops will then largely be over.

So far, as of early May, the objective of crop protection has been achieved and only very few reports of damage have been received, according to FAO. The crop protection campaign will lead on to a medium-term plan which will seek to establish a preventive control strategy using even more environmentally benign materials including biopesticides.

FAO is working closely with Plant Protection Officers of the Agriculture Ministry of Aghanistan. The fight against the locust plague is supported by several NGOs including the Irish NGO Goal. Local Government, in the form of provincial Governors, and local people are also heavily involved.

The locust control campaign is being financed by FAO from its own resources, and by major contributions from the US Office for Disaster Assistance (OFDA/USA) and by the British Department for International Development (DFID). Goal is supported by the European Commission.

The species of locust currently infesting northern Afghanistan is the Moroccan Locust Dociostaurus maroccanus. It is different from the Desert Locust Schistocerca gregaria which is actually the species referred to in the Bible and was one of the plagues of Egypt. The Moroccan Locust is a species which occurs in semi-arid steppe and semi-desert, and it causes problems in countries such as Morocco and Algeria in North Africa, and a group of countries in Central Asia including Turkey, Iran, Iraq, some of the ex-Soviet Republics and Afghanistan. By contrast, the Desert Locust normally inhabits a vast stretch of desert habitat from Mauritania/Morocco in the West across the Sahel, through Sudan, across the Arabian peninsula, on to the Indo-Pakistan border.