KABUL/ROME, 1 August 2002 -- A campaign to control a locust outbreak in Northern Afghanistan has succeeded in keeping crop damage to a minimum. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates crop losses in the three most seriously affected provinces, the breadbasket of the war-torn country, at about 7 percent. But FAO urged that control operations needed to start early next spring to avoid another locust emergency.

FAO and the Afghan plant protection staff are currently implementing a survey of the areas in which locusts are laying their egg-pods. When the results are known, contingency plans and preparedness programmes will be drawn up for the 2003 control campaign which will attempt to avoid the development of another major outbreak.

According to FAO locust control expert Andrew Harvey, the survivors of the locusts that infested hundreds of thousands of hectares of farmland in Northern Afghanistan in the first half of 2002, have laid eggs across a wide stretch of land.

"We can't afford to wait until the eggs hatch next year and develop into swarms before taking action," Harvey said. "We have to find out where the eggs are laid and kill the young hoppers as early as possible when they hatch out in the spring, before they can become adults and are able to fly."

Moroccan locust (Dociostaurus maroccanus) infestations occur annually in Northern Afghanistan. The scale and intensity of the infestations vary from year to year.

"This year, because it was an emergency campaign, only the locusts directly threatening the crops could be controlled to mitigate crop damage," Harvey said. "But, with a properly prepared campaign, we can not only reduce the damage on crops even further next year, but also begin to bring the overall numbers down to a level that can be managed by a sustainable long-term control strategy."

In March this year, FAO launched a US$800 000 campaign to combat the worst locust plague to hit Afghanistan for thirty years. Funding was provided by the US, the UK, and from FAO's own resources. The exceptionally high locust population was the result of two years without control and favourable breeding conditions created by the drought. Three out of the nine Northern provinces, Baghlan, Samangan and Kunduz, were particularly hard hit and over 70 percent of crop production across the north was judged to be at risk.

The locust eradication campaign was run by Afghan staff. FAO, NGOs and other UN agencies provided necessary technical expertise and inputs. This meant that by mid-June just under 240 000 ha had been cleared using mechanical or chemical methods. The success of the campaign is all the more striking given the logistical and security constraints under which the control teams had to operate.

In the 1990s FAO helped to set up community control mechanisms, whereby farmers were trained to monitor where the eggs were being laid and to kill the vulnerable young hoppers as they emerged from the ground, by driving them into trenches and burying them.

This method, known as mechanical control, only works if it is carried out every year and if communities can be mobilised on a large scale. Following the collapse of the Taliban regime at the end of 2001, locust control programme resources were looted and the emergency campaign of 2002 had to start from scratch. It soon became apparent that mechanical control was being overwhelmed by the size of the outbreak and the amount of chemical control was accordingly increased.

In a race against time, FAO organized an airlift of pesticides and spraying equipment into Northern Afghanistan for deployment against the locusts. For areas not accessible by road, a helicopter was used to distribute the materials. Five vehicle-mounted sprayers and 1 300 hand-held sprayers were used to apply almost 30 000 litres of pesticides against the hopper bands. Around 250 locally recruited operators were employed either by FAO or NGOs to protect the livelihoods of some four million people.

Another important step was to establish a locust database to record survey and control information, to be used for subsequent analysis and future planning. Vital information collected during earlier control programmes was lost during looting.