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Locust swarms form dark clouds over South Asia food security

Beijing tells authorities to prepare for possible invasion

A locust invasion has caused a food crisis in Ethiopia.   © Reuters

TOKYO/NEW DELHI -- Locust infestations are causing massive damage to farm crops in East Africa, India and Pakistan, prompting the United Nations to warn of a "humanitarian crisis" resulting from the food shortage.

About 12 million people in Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya are coping with a food crisis, reports the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization. The Somalian government declared a state of emergency last month while Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan in the same month invoked a national emergency to protect crops and farmers.

Swarms of locusts have arrived in desert regions bordering India and Pakistan since August last year, according to the FAO. The current population numbers about 10 billion, enough to blacken skies over villages.

In Pakistan, the locusts are destroying tomato, wheat and cotton crops, sending food prices skyrocketing.

India's western state of Gujarat suffered locust damage to about 10,700 hectares last December, mainly to cumin seed fields.

Beijing raised alarm bells on Monday, urging localities near its border with India and Pakistan to be watchful of the pests in the coming months. The country's National Forestry and Grassland Administrations said that though the risk was currently low, China will have difficulty tracking the locusts because of a lack of monitoring techniques and little knowledge of migration patterns, the administrations say.

Increased inspections are already taking place at customs checkpoints, state media reported. At Khunjerab, a pass between China and Pakistan in southwestern Xinjiang, officials have begun to monitor areas within 2 km for locusts. Vehicles are being sterilized and are checking goods they comes across the border, checking soil and plants for locusts and their eggs.

Kenya is the hardest-hit country, where up to 200 billion locusts are destroying pasture and farmland in 2,400 sq. kilometer area. The plague could potentially wipe out enough food to feed 84 million people.

The infestations in Ethiopia and Somalia were the biggest in 25 years.

The chief cause of the swarms is the unseasonable rainfall East African deserts received in recent years, scientists say, creating ideal breeding conditions.

Global warming has extended the locusts' breeding period, which has led to damage of an unprecedented scale, said Shakeel Khan, sector specialist for FAO Pakistan. Civil war and meager state coffers have severely undercut the ability of authorities to engage in pest control.

The scope of the damage is expected to expand because a locust swarm can travel 150 km in a single day, putting parts of Saudi Arabia, Iran and Yemen at particular risk of an invasion, according to Reuters.

"Left unchecked, the numbers of crop-devouring insects [in East Africa] could grow 500 times by June," the FAO said.

The organization is seeking $138 million in contributions to fight the insects and for food support. In East Africa in particular, the locust infestation comes on top of poor harvests caused by alternating droughts and heavy rain over recent years.

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