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UN warns of locust surge on both sides of Red Sea

A locust outbreak in Sudan and Eritrea is spreading rapidly along both sides of the Red Sea to Saudi Arabia and Egypt, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization said on Friday, flagging a possible threat to crops and food security.

“Good rains along the Red Sea coastal plains in Eritrea and Sudan have allowed two generations of breeding since October, leading to a substantial increase in locust populations and the formation of highly mobile swarms,” the FAO said.

At least one swarm had crossed to the northern coast of Saudi Arabia in mid-January, with further swarms a week later.

Rains from two cyclones in 2018 had triggered breeding of locusts in the Empty Quarter region of Saudi Arabia, near the Yemen-Oman border, and a few swarms from two generations of breeding had reached the United Arab Emirates and southern Iran.

There was a risk of further spread towards the India-Pakistan border, the FAO statement said.

“The next three months will be critical to bring the locust situation under control before the summer breeding starts,” FAO locust expert Keith Cressman said in the statement.

“The further spread of the current outbreak depends on two major factors – effective control and monitoring measures in locust breeding areas of Sudan, Eritrea and Saudi Arabia and the surrounding countries, and rainfall intensity between March and May along both sides of the Red Sea and in the interior of the Arabian Peninsula.”

Control operations have treated nearly 85,000 ha (200,000 acres) since December including 30,000 ha in the past two weeks in Egypt, Eritrea, Saudi Arabia and Sudan, the FAO said.

Control measures are also underway in Iran after at least one swarm arrived on the southern coast at the end of January, it said.

Adult locust swarms can fly up to 150 km a day with the wind and adult insects can consume roughly their own weight in fresh food per day. A very small swarm eats as much in one day as about 35,000 people, posing a devastating threat to crops and food security.

In an emailed comment to Reuters, Cressman said the last major desert locust upsurge was in 2003-2005 when more than 12 million hectares were treated in west and northwest Africa, incurring a cost of about $750 million including food aid.

Since then there have been numerous outbreaks along the coastal plains on both sides of the Red Sea that were mostly controlled.

The FAO will hold a meeting in Jordan next week to discuss intensifying control measures with affected countries, the statement said.

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